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Information about Legionnaires

May 11, 2011

William Walker, MD
Contra Costa Health Services

One of our staff members at the Richmond Health Center has passed away, and tests on Monday showed that he had Legionnaires‘ disease.

I'm Dr. William Walker, Director of Contra Costa Health Services and the County Health Officer, I understand that not only are we mourning the loss of a co-worker but also that this illness can cause concern, so I would like to share with you some information about the disease and what steps we are taking to ensure patients and staff are safe.

Legionnaires‘ disease is a pneumonia-like infection that is not contagious and not spread person to person. A person gets infected by breathing in water mist contaminated with Legionella bacteria. Although Legionnaires can be a serious disease, it is important to remember that most people who are exposed to the Legionella bacteria do not get sick. And most people who do get ill, recover with treatment. People with underlying health conditions are at higher risk of serious complications.

We generally have 3 to 10 cases of Legionnaires identified in the county each year, with one confirmed case in Contra Costa County so far this year. Annually, there are about 8,000 to 18,000 people hospitalized with Legionnaires in the United States. The vast majority of these cases are sporadic, or random, with no particular source of the bacteria ever identified. Legionella bacteria naturally occurs in the environment, especially in hot water systems such as hot tubs, cooling towers and decorative fountains.

In 2008, another Richmond Health Center employee was diagnosed with Legionnaires disease and treated. Where this employee contracted this illness was never confirmed, but we took precautions then that have continued today. In cooperation with Cal-OSHA and the state health department, we tested the building's air and water supplies in 2008. Tests indicated that the water in the health center's cooling tower may have contained the bacteria, which is very common in air conditioning systems. To address this issue then, we disinfected the heating and cooling system and continue to do so on a regular basis.

We are testing the building‘s water system again. We expect that at least some of the samples will show Legionelle, as the bacteria is frequently found in water whenever it is tested for. There have not been any other cases of Legionnaires identified, and we consider the health center to be safe for both staff and patients.

Legionnaires' disease can be hard to diagnose initially. Early symptoms are similar to the common flu and other conditions and include a high fever, chills and a cough. Some people may even suffer from muscle aches and headaches. If you have become ill, especially if you have underlying health conditions such as chronic lung disease, or are immunocompromised, contact your health care provider so that you can receive correct diagnosis and treatment for your particular illness.

I wish I could assure you that there is absolutely no danger of anyone in Contra Costa being diagnosed with Legionnaires‘ disease. Of course that isn't possible since it is a bacteria that many people are exposed to in a variety of settings. We may never know for certain where our employee contracted the illness but we will continue to take every precaution necessary. Our first priority is to ensure the safety of our employees and patients. You can find out more information about Legionnaires‘ disease on our website at

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