Rise in Respiratory Disease Linked to Contaminated Water, Rhode Island Health Dept. Warns

The Rhode Island Department of Health said Monday it is investigating a rise in cases of Legionnaires' Disease, a respiratory illness that most commonly spreads through the air of contaminated water systems.

The state reported 30 cases of the disease from June 2 to July 26, with 29 infections occurring between the weeks of June 17 and July 21. By comparison, Rhode Island averaged just 10 cases a month for June and July over the past six years, the health department said.

Among the 30 people who recently contracted the illness, 28 have been hospitalized.

The disease, which is caused by the Legionella bacterium, typically affects people within two to 10 days of exposure. Symptoms of Legionnaires' Disease include cough, shortness of breath, fever, muscle aches, headaches and lung failure.

According to the health department, most people who are diagnosed with the disease will require hospitalization but will make a full recovery by taking antibiotics.

However, the department warned that one in 10 people, on average, dies from the illness. Those who are diagnosed and begin taking antibiotics early in their illness are less likely to have serious complications or die.

The health department said that no common source of exposure linking to the recent outbreak of cases has been identified but that an investigation is underway.

Rhode Island  Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak
The Rhode Island Department of Health is investigating a recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease, an illness that spreads through the Legionella bacterium. Above, Legionella colonies are illuminated with ultraviolet light. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images/Getty Images

"We know that Legionella bacteria grow best in complex water systems that are not well maintained," Health Director Nicole Alexander-Scott said in a statement. "When this water becomes aerosolized in small droplets, such as in a cooling tower, shower, or decorative fountain, people can accidentally breathe in the contaminated water."

Alexander-Scott added that this issue is of "particular concern" now since the water systems in some buildings have been offline for long periods because of the coronavirus pandemic and have recently returned to service.

Legionella bacteria are more commonly found in buildings that house people older than 65, as well as in buildings with multiple housing units and a centralized hot water system, such as hotels or high-rise apartment complexes.

To prevent the risk of exposure, the health department recommends that seniors living in multiple housing units with a centralized hot water system ask if there is a Legionella water management program in place.

Additionally, residents of homes or other types of buildings are encouraged to clean and disinfect areas such as hot tubs, whirlpools, showerheads and breathing equipment like continuous positive airway pressure machines, in order to help stop bacteria from growing.