The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

August 1, 2013

Disease strikes inmates

SOMERSET — Authorities at State Correctional Institution–Somerset are checking water sources throughout the facility after four inmates were diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease.

The acute respiratory infection, first identified in 1976, is normally contracted by inhaling water vapors or mist containing the bacteria, said Dr. Louis Schenfeld, an infectious disease specialist in Johnstown.

“We are focused on the air conditioning system and cooling towers,” prison spokesman Allen Joseph said.

“That is a separate system from the drinking water. It doesn’t have anything to do with the water coming into the institution because that water has been treated.”

To be doubly cautious, inmates are being supplied with bottled water for drinking, Joseph added.

The four cases are not isolated to one residential unit, Joseph said. So testing is being done on water sources in all areas.

Schenfeld agreed that the ventilation system is the most likely source.

“That’s where it would be coming from,” he said. “It is an air-water connection.”

Although Legionnaires’ disease was first identified when 34 people died and about 200 more became sick after staying in a Philadelphia hotel during a 1976 state American Legion convention, diagnosis and treatment has improved greatly since then, Schenfeld stressed.

A simple blood test confirms the disease, and treatment with common antibiotics normally is all that is required, he said.

“It is not spread from person to person,” Schenfeld said.

State Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said officials are taking the situation very seriously, but that the public is not in any danger.

Prison officials in Somerset discovered the first case July 15 after an inmate got sick and needed treatment outside the prison. He tested positive for the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’.

A second inmate was diagnosed July 21, and two more were diagnosed July 24.

All four are in recovery inside the prison.

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