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Legionnaires’ outbreak at Atlanta Sheraton hotel becomes largest recorded in state history

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)
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One woman is dead and dozens more are ill as a medical mystery unfolds at an Atlanta hotel. But where did the bacteria suspected of causing their sickness originate?

According to the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office, 49-year-old Cameo Garrett died of coronary artery disease aggravated by Legionella pneumonia after staying at the Sheraton Atlanta hotel. WSB-TV in Atlanta reported she stayed at the hotel in late June, later became sick and was found dead at her home July 9.

In a statement, the Georgia Department of Public Health said that as of Aug. 7, there are 11 other lab-confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease, a type of pneumonia caused by the Legionella bacteria. Another 63 cases are classified as “probable,” meaning they have confirmed symptoms of the disease and pneumonia but not a lab test, CNN reported Monday. That’s slightly higher than the 61 probable cases the health department confirmed last week, and the largest recorded outbreak of Legionella in state history, CNN said.

All the people who have become ill either stayed at the hotel or visited the hotel, the health department said.

The hotel, which has more than 700 rooms, closed on July 15 and will stay shuttered until at least Wednesday, August 14, general manager Ken Peduzzi said in a statement.

Legionnaires’ outbreaks: Cases nearly quadrupled in 15 years

“Sheraton Atlanta continues to work closely with public health officials and environmental experts to determine if the hotel is the source of the Legionella outbreak,” he said. The state health department said a first set of samples was collected July 19, followed by more on July 29. Officials from state and county health departments are overseeing the work done by a contractor for the hotel.

“The hotel has voluntarily moved ahead with precautionary remedial activities while awaiting results,” Peduzzi said. “The health and safety of our employees and guests is our top priority."

Health officials are asking anyone who stayed at the hotel or visited between June 12 and July 15 to fill out an online survey describing their activities at the hotel and elsewhere in Atlanta to help with the investigation.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Legionnaires’ disease is deadly for about 10 percent of people who are infected. Those at increased risk include people who have compromised immune systems or chronic lung disease, are 50 or older or are current or former smokers. The disease isn’t passed from person to person, but rather caused by breathing in tiny water droplets that contain the bacteria. About 5,000 cases are reported a year, the agency says, with most outbreaks occurring in hotels, hospitals and long-term care facilities.

Allison Chamberlain, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, said large buildings like hotels can be susceptible to outbreaks in part because they might have miles of plumbing as well as multiple water features that can produce small water droplets that people can inhale. Figuring out the source of an outbreak can be complicated.

“It takes a lot of investigation from individuals with a variety of expertise and backgrounds … to understand where to test and how to test and how to sort of pinpoint the culprit,” she says.

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