The CDC Is Closing Offices Because of This COVID Risk It Warned About
The CDC issued warnings that COVID shutdowns could lead to outbreaks of a potentially deadly ailment.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has shut down multiple offices in Atlanta due to a potentially deadly threat emerging amid the coronavirus pandemic: Legionnaires' disease. In a statement issued to CNN on Aug. 7, the public health agency confirmed that, "Legionella, which can cause Legionnaires' disease, is present in a cooling tower as well as in some water sources in the buildings. Out of an abundance of caution, we have closed these buildings until successful remediation is complete."
While Legionnaires' disease is rarely spread from person to person, legionella-contaminated water in the air—which usually comes from bathroom plumbing, cooling towers, hot tubs, water tanks, and ornamental water features—can cause outbreaks of the disease, which frequently leads to pneumonia, and has a 1 in 10 fatality rate. However, the CDC explains that most people who come into contact with legionella won't develop Legionnaires' disease, and that immunocompromised individuals, people over 50, current or former smokers, and those with other chronic health issues, including lung disease, diabetes, or organ failure, are most susceptible to adverse effects.
Leann Poston, MD, a physician with Invigor Medical, says that, while complications from Legionnaires' disease can include "respiratory failure from the severe pneumonia, septic shock from widespread infection in the blood, and kidney failure," for most individuals without underlying conditions, the disease won't become life-threatening. "Legionella can be treated with antibiotics," Poston explains. "Most people will recover completely."
Despite the evacuation of its Atlanta offices, the CDC was acutely aware of the potential for legionella growth during the pandemic. In May, the agency issued specific guidance for reopening buildings after coronavirus shutdowns, noting that stagnant water in unoccupied buildings could be the perfect breeding ground for legionella to grow. The agency specifically noted that hot water, when stagnant for a long period of time, can cool significantly, putting it into temperature zone that's highly conducive to legionella growth—specifically, 77 to 108 degrees Fahrenheit.
Along with highlighting the potential for legionella growth in unused buildings, the CDC also issued specific guidelines for reducing the chance of that occurring. In addition to creating a water management plan prior to shutting down, the agency recommends draining water heaters after long periods without use and setting any that remain full to 140 degrees Fahrenheit; flushing water systems; and cleaning and maintaining hot tubs, cooling towers, sprinkler systems, and ornamental water features according to local water treatment authority and manufacturer specifications.
However, Poston says that, out of an abundance of caution, workers should wait 48 to 72 hours after a water system is flushed to return to any building, and recommends that anyone who needs to return earlier wear an N95 mask when doing so. And for more expert-backed ways to protect yourself amid the coronavirus pandemic, check out these 50 Essential COVID Safety Tips the CDC Wants You to Know.