Buildings Closed Due To COVID-19 At Risk For Legionnaires’ Disease

Buildings reopening following the shutdown pose a health risk that mimics COVID-19 if water systems aren't brought online properly.

Recent building closures during the COVID-19 pandemic have created a prime environment for the spread of the Legionella bacteria. As buildings start to reopen after their plumbing systems have sat dormant or underused for weeks, workers are at risk of developing Legionnaires’ disease, a respiratory illness with symptoms similar to COVID-19 and pneumonia.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is now recommending a water management process before buildings are reopened following a prolonged shutdown to minimize the risk of Legionnaires’ disease and other diseases associated with water. Integrated Facility Services’ certified technicians have begun procedures to sample for Legionella and other biofilm-related bacteria at buildings in the Saint Louis region and advise on a safe water management strategy.

Legionnaires’ Disease“Much effort has been made to ensure the safety of our region’s employees. It would be very unfortunate for Legionnaires’ disease to become an increased risk as we work to reopen our economy and businesses. Business owners should consider taking these relatively simple measures when reopening their idled buildings in order to protect the health and safety of occupants,” said John Rundquist, president of Integrated Facility Services.

About Legionella & Legionnaires’ Disease

Legionella is a naturally occurring bacteria in freshwater water that can be harmful when it grows in man-made plumbing systems. Stagnant water can create conditions that increase the risk for growth and spread of Legionella and other biofilm-related bacteria, according to the CDC. Legionnaires’ disease is a very serious type of pneumonia caused by Legionella bacteria.

Legionnaires’ disease has symptoms very similar to pneumonia and COVID-19 that include a cough, shortness of breath, fever, muscle aches, and headaches. Legionnaires’ disease can be associated with other symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, and confusion. Symptoms usually begin two to 10 days after being exposed to the bacteria. Persons at increased risk for developing Legionnaires’ disease include those 50 years or older, current or former smokers or people with chronic lung disease, cancer or other underlying conditions like diabetes, kidney failure, and liver failure. People with weak immune systems or those who take drugs that weaken the immune system are also at higher risk.

Spread Of Legionella In buildings

Legionella that grows in artificial water systems poses the greatest risk for building occupants, particularly as people return to a recently idled workplace. When a fixture is engaged in a man-made water system, some water droplets become airborne. If these aerosolized droplets are contaminated with the Legionella bacteria, they pose a risk of infecting the person using the fixture. The bacteria must be inhaled or aspirated to cause Legionnaires’ disease. Water fountains, spas, and showers are some of the highest risk fixtures for spreading the bacteria.

The CDC reports that cases have been increasing exponentially over the past 20 years. According to the CDC, “It is unclear whether this increase represents artifact (due to increased awareness and testing), increased susceptibility of the population, increased Legionella in the environment, or some combination of factors.”

Legionnaires’ DiseaseCDC Resources And Recommendations

The CDC recommends these eight steps before businesses reopen their buildings:

  • Develop a comprehensive water management program for the water system and all devices that use water.
  • Ensure the water heater is properly maintained and the temperature is correctly set.
  • Flush water systems.
  • Clean all decorative water features, such as fountains.
  • Ensure hot tubs/spas are safe for use.
  • Ensure cooling towers are clean and well-maintained.
  • Ensure fire sprinkler systems, eyewash stations, and safety showers are clean and well-maintained.
  • Maintain the water system.

Integrated Facility Services’ team of United Association (UA) Certified Water Quality Program Representatives and Certified Technicians are available to help area businesses ensure the health and safety of employees and other building occupants. In addition to testing for bacteria, the IFS team can provide employers and property managers with guidance and connect them to additional resources as needed to keep their building occupants safe.

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