Buildings closed by coronavirus face another risk: Legionnaires’ disease

Source: | John Shiffman

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Commercial buildings shuttered for weeks to stem the spread of the coronavirus could fuel another grisly lung infection: Legionnaires’ disease.

Public health experts are urging landlords across the globe to carefully re-open buildings to prevent outbreaks of the severe, sometimes lethal, form of pneumonia.

The sudden and sweeping closures of schools, factories, businesses and government offices have created an unprecedented decline in water use. The lack of chlorinated water flowing through pipes, combined with irregular temperature changes, have created conditions ripe for the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, they said.

If diagnosed early, Legionnaires’ disease poses less of a health risk than COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Most cases can be successfully cured with antibiotics, and Legionnaires cannot be spread from human to human contact.

But as communities consider reopening, any commercial facility vacated or underutilized for more than three weeks is at risk for a Legionnaires’ outbreak, unless the water pipes are properly flushed and otherwise sanitized, health experts and government officials say.

“After surviving COVID-19, who wants to open a building and have another set of significant safety issues?” said Molly Scanlon, an Arizona environmental health scientist who is leading a coronavirus task force for the American Institute of Architects. “Our medical system is already under enough stress as it is.”

Those at risk include schools, gyms, factories, hotels, restaurants and outpatient surgical centers, Scanlon said. According to guidance updated Wednesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the threat also applies to hot tubs, water fountains, sprinkler systems and millions of water cooling towers atop commercial buildings.

“It’s a worldwide problem, one that can be solved with precautions,” said British microbiologist Susanne Surman-Lee, who co-drafted reopening guidelines for the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases. “Most major corporations with consultants are likely to be aware of the stagnant water systems issue, but this is going to be a challenge for smaller retail-style shops, health clubs and hotels.”

Water and sanitation organizations have joined the call for caution during reopening.