Prison scrambles as Legionnaires' disease sickens inmate

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Saturday, August 29, 2015
Legionnaires disease
Legionnaires disease

SACRAMENTO, CA -- Officials at California's oldest state prison scrambled to provide safe drinking water to thousands of inmates after waterborne Legionnaires' disease hospitalized one inmate and was suspected of sickening more than two dozen others.

Water was quickly shut off at San Quentin State Prison Thursday after testing confirmed the potentially fatal illness.

A 3,800-gallon water tanker was hauled to the 163-year-old prison north of San Francisco, along with 2,800 liter bottles and a makeshift assortment of containers holding another 380 gallons of water.

Security was beefed up as additional correctional officers were brought in to escort more than 3,700 inmates from their cells to about 100 temporary toilets, until the prison restrooms were reopened for use on Friday.

Drinking water was still being brought in as health officials tried to find the cause of the contamination.

Aside from the confirmed case, two other inmates also were hospitalized with symptoms and officials were awaiting tests results as early as this weekend on whether any of about 30 inmates have the disease.

Dr. Bob Benjamin, Marin County's deputy public health officer, said through a spokesman that emergency response planning at the prison seemed to have paid off.

The prison was closed to visitors and volunteers through the weekend, though officials said the public was not believed to be in danger. None of the prison's more than 1,200 employees have been sickened.

"The staff at San Quentin showed exemplary preparedness to this incident and we continue to be flexible in our responses as we control this situation," Correctional Lt. Samuel Robinson said in an email.

The disease is considered a severe type of pneumonia, bringing high fever, chills and a cough.

"As we have people come down with symptoms we're going to test them," said Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for the federal court-appointed receiver who controls inmate medical care.

A recent outbreak that sickened 128 people and killed 12 in New York City was traced by the city's health commissioner to a rooftop air conditioning unit at a Bronx hotel.

Legionella bacteria grow in water and spread through water molecules, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bacteria can cause a mild infection known as Pontiac fever or the more serious infection known as Legionnaires' disease.

The disease occurs when contaminated water is inhaled into the lungs in the form of steam, mist or moisture. It is considered particularly dangerous for older people and those with underlying health issues.

Once officials identify the source, they generally use higher-than-normal levels of chlorine to kill the bacteria. Water at the prison usually comes from a tank that can hold about 3 million gallons.