US Covid-19 Shutdown Raises Prospect of Legionnaires’ Outbreaks
The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the way we live, work and play – but it’s still far from over despite the roll-out of game-changing vaccines. One trend that’s become a part of many peoples lives is a move from the traditional workplace to the home. This has meant many workplaces are currently vacant, unused… perhaps even unwanted!
This article looks at some of the unintended safety consequences the pandemic shutdown in the US (and elsewhere) may have when people eventually return to their places of work… especially the increased risks from the potentially deadly Legionnaires’ disease.
US Covid-19 shutdown
In common with many other countries around the world, the US has brought in shutdowns to combat the spread of coronavirus.
2021 brings with it countless challenges for us all as we navigate our way through the pandemic.
Cases are on the rise again, and there are no signs we will return to our pre-COVID ways anytime soon.
Multiple buildings disused during shutdown
Schools, stores, and office buildings closed their doors throughout 2020 as cases rose across the country. Many remained closed as winter arrived.
Adjusting to working and studying from home has been tough for many people. However, it has also proven to be far safer.
Yet while the risk of catching COVID-19 may be reduced by spending more time at home, there are risks connected to reopening schools and workplaces too. And those risks have nothing to do with coronavirus.
New safety advice issued by the CDC
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has highlighted the potential dangers that may lurk inside buildings that have remained shut for months.
A new report, called Reopening Buildings After Shutdown, covers many risks associated with this process.
They include the risk of lead or copper leaching into water supplies, mould that may be present inside a locked building with no airflow, and, of course, Legionella bacteria.
The basic information introducing the report states that it could take weeks or months for Legionella bacteria to colonise the water systems inside a building.
No two buildings are identical, so some may be colonised sooner than others.
The report gives an eight-step process for managing and minimising the risk posed by legionella before a building is opened for use once more.
Legionella posed a risk even before COVID-19 arrived
Americans have been safeguarded by the US Safe Drinking Water Act since 1974.
Many diseases have been wiped out thanks to the steps taken in that Act.
However, legionella and the severe illness it causes, Legionnaires’ disease, has proven to be the one that has bucked that trend.
Many countries still experience legionella outbreaks each year – and the summer months have proven to be more likely to see such outbreaks.
It is thought that the rise in temperatures can bring water temperatures into the danger zone for the spread of Legionella bacteria.
Legionella will multiply between 20 – 45 degrees Celsius – this is the danger zone.
If the temperature drops below 20 degrees Celsius, the bacteria fall into a dormant state.
Conversely, if the temperature goes beyond 60 degrees Celsius, the bacteria die.
So, if we take this information and think about when the shutdowns started to take place in the US, we can see that many buildings remained shut or closed during the summer.
This has created a perfect storm for Legionella bacteria and subsequently raised the risk of colonisations occurring in multiple buildings in the US.
Creating the ideal circumstances for legionella to spread
If you wanted to give Legionella bacteria the best chance to grow, you would need to make sure the water it lived in remained between 20 – 45 degrees Celsius.
You would also make sure that water system was unused for as long as possible.
When water flows, the bacteria find it much harder to establish themselves and multiply.
Leave it to sit in the pipes, however, and the water becomes stagnant.
This gives the bacteria something to feed off, so it is something of a double whammy – and not in a good way.
During the summer of 2020, when buildings, schools, and businesses were shut across America, legionella had that opportunity to grow.
Understanding aerosols and how they contribute to Legionnaires’ disease
Legionnaires’ disease affects the lungs, and when someone is infected with the bacteria, they develop legionellosis… the milder version of this is Pontiac fever.
Pontiac fever does not usually require treatment, and in fact some people who have it may think they have a case of the ‘flu.
The more serious version is one many people have heard of – Legionnaires’ disease.
An outbreak could sicken many people and lead to many requiring hospital treatment.
In both cases, however, the bacteria must be inhaled into the lungs via an aerosol – a very fine spray of liquid droplets suspended in the air.
This could be via something as innocent as an ornamental fountain or simply via a shower spray or cooling tower.
A cooling tower was found to have caused the outbreak that gave the disease its name.
This occurred in 1976 in Philadelphia, USA, at a convention organised for members of the American Legion.
More recent outbreaks in the US have also been traced back to cooling towers.
Could we see a rise in Legionnaires’ cases stemming from the COVID-19 shutdown?
We certainly hope not… yet this does remain a real possibility.
Water systems in most buildings are used daily but that has not been the case for many buildings during 2020 and 2021.
The CDC’s guidance clearly recognises that many buildings have been standing empty for many weeks or months – raising the risk that legionella has had a field day while everyone has stayed at home.
Of course, this is not a risk that is unique to America.
Every country and every building that has gone through a shutdown could see an increased risk of Legionnaires’ outbreaks as we find our way through the Covid pandemic.
If you manage a building or you are responsible for maintaining the premises and/or the water supply, think carefully about what you must do before allowing people back into the building again.
The regular steps you take to remove or reduce the risks from legionella may not suffice in these unique circumstances.
After a long shutdown of weeks or perhaps months, you should conduct a fresh risk legionella assessment to identify where those additional risks lie.
In some cases, it is easier to hire a professional such as Legionella Control International to handle this for you.
They will know what to do to get the premises open again safely.
This could include water testing, disinfecting and flushing through the system, checking water temperatures, dosing special chemicals, and other measures according to the individual requirements of that system.
We hope that as buildings gradually reopen, we won’t see an uptick in the number of legionella outbreaks that could occur – not just in America but around the world.
Expert guidance on how to safely bring your buildings back-online
Our team of water safety experts have prepared a useful guide that sets-out a number of practical steps duty holders, the responsible person and others responsible for workplace safety should consider before they recommission their buildings and water systems following a period of inactivity such as a Covid-19 lock-down.
Expert legionella risk management solutions
Legionella Control International is a world-leading legionella and water safety specialist. Our teams of experts support building owners, landlords and those responsible for the control of waterborne pathogens including legionella in the workplace, helping them to protect their staff, tenants and others and so meet their health and safety obligations in this specialist area.
We deliver a range of specialist risk management solutions including risk assessment, legionella testing, regulatory compliance auditing, training, expert witness support and other services that help keep people safe.