CDC closes some offices over bacteria discovery

By Max Horberry

The nation’s foremost public health agency is learning that it is not immune to the complex effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told employees that some office space it leases in the Atlanta area would be closed again after property managers of the buildings discovered Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, in water sources at the sites. No employees were sickened. The announcement was reported Friday by CNN.

That the CDC is contending with this problem highlights the seriousness of Legionella in the aftermath of coronavirus lockdowns, and how complicated it can be to prevent it.

The CDC itself warns that Legionnaires’ disease, a respiratory illness, can be fatal in 1 in 10 cases. Since various jurisdictions in the United States have put in effect lockdowns to contain the spread of the coronavirus, some experts have been warning of the risk of Legionnaires’ outbreaks when people return to buildings left unoccupied for months. The bacteria that causes the illness, Legionella pneumophila, can form in warm, stagnant water that is not properly disinfected. When sinks are turned on or toilets flushed, the bacteria can then be sent through the air and inhaled.

While most earlier research focused on the growth of Legionella during weekends and short holiday periods, scientists are only beginning to learn about how the bacteria proliferates during periods of long-term stagnation, and which methods are most effective to protect against it.

“Legionella is something that even though we’ve known about it since the 1970s or so, we’re still learning about it every day,” said Caitlin Proctor, a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue University in Indiana who has been studying the bacteria during lockdown.

Traditionally, flushing, the process of turning on taps and showers, for example, and sending fresh water through the building, can help. But the length of the lockdown during the coronavirus outbreak is saddling building owners with new challenges.

The CDC has published voluntary guidelines to aid building owners and property managers aiming to prevent Legionella from spreading as facilities reopen. But Andrew Whelton, an associate professor of civil, environmental and ecological engineering also at Purdue, thinks that the guidelines are often not specific enough.

“This is by design,” he said. “Generally, federal guidance that’s issued is generic, and what building owners need is prescriptive advice.”

“It’s possible that these guidelines weren’t enough,” Proctor said.

States, counties and cities also have their own rules that in some cases may not match the CDC’s advice.

Some buildings, depending on how long they were locked down, require a higher dose of chlorine than is traditionally used. The CDC’s post-lockdown guidelines are not specific about how much flushing is required and often buildings do not flush for a long enough time or throughout the entire building.

It is unclear whether the managers of the buildings where the CDC closed its offices had followed the agency’s published guidelines or another set of rules. A CDC spokeswoman said in a statement that “during the recent closures at our leased space in Atlanta,” the agency, working through the federal General Services Administration, which provides offices for much of the U.S. government, had “directed the landlord to take protective actions.”

Whelton said that building owners were often insufficiently communicative with their tenants about water management plans.

“The CDC is a tenant,” he said, “just like many businesses across the country who have to rely on the good will and faith of building owners to do the right thing.” For any company, it can be difficult to ensure appropriate measures have been taken for its offices.

The CDC buildings affected will be closed until the problem is fixed.

“That the CDC can’t prevent Legionella contamination in their buildings is a sign that we all need to be proactive about this issue,” Proctor said.

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