The Rhode Island Department of Health said on Monday that it is investigating the increase in cases of Legionnaires’ disease, a respiratory disease that is most commonly spread through the air in contaminated water systems.
The state reported 30 cases from June 2 to July 26, of which 29 infections occurred in the weeks from June 17 to July 21. In contrast, Rhode Island has averaged only 10 cases per month in June and July for the past six years, the health department said.
Of the 30 people who have recently been infected, 28 have been hospitalized.
This disease caused by Legionella bacteria usually affects people within 2 to 10 days after exposure. Symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease include cough, shortness of breath, fever, muscle aches, headaches, and lung failure.
According to the health department, most people diagnosed with this disease will need to be hospitalized but will fully recover by taking antibiotics.
However, the department warned that an average of one in ten people died from the disease. Those who are diagnosed early in the disease and start taking antibiotics are unlikely to experience serious complications or death.
The health department said it has not yet determined the common source of exposure related to the recent outbreak, but is investigating.
“We know that Legionella grows best in poorly maintained complex water systems,” Health Director Nicole Alexander-Scott said in a statement. “When this water atomizes into small droplets, such as in cooling towers, showers or decorative fountains, people may accidentally inhale contaminated water.”
Alexander-Scott added that this issue is now “particularly worrying” because the water supply systems of some buildings have been offline for a long time due to the coronavirus pandemic and have recently resumed service.
Legionella bacteria are more common in buildings that house people over 65, as well as buildings with multiple housing units and centralized hot water systems, such as hotels or high-rise apartment buildings.
To prevent exposure risks, the health department recommends that elderly people living in multiple housing units with centralized hot water systems ask if there is a legionella water management plan.
In addition, residents of homes or other types of buildings are encouraged to clean and disinfect areas such as hot tubs, whirlpools, shower heads, and continuous positive airway pressure ventilator and other respiratory equipment to help prevent bacterial growth.