- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The death toll from a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at a western Illinois veterans home climbed to seven Tuesday, with the state’s public health director suggesting more fatalities are likely.

Officials with the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and the state Department of Public Health said that each of the victims at the 129-year-old Quincy facility had underlying medical conditions, with an average age of 86.

Thirty-nine residents have been sickened so far, and test results for others remain pending. The outbreak was first identified late last week; its source remains undetermined.

“Unfortunately, we expect to see additional cases and possibly additional deaths because the incubation period for Legionnaires’ disease can be up to two weeks,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, Illinois’ public health director.

An epidemiological team from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta came to Quincy on Monday to assist the state investigation. CDC officials referred inquiries to their Illinois counterparts.

Legionnaires’ disease is a severe form of pneumonia, with lung inflammation usually caused by infection. Most people get it from inhaling bacteria that can’t be transmitted by human contact but thrives in warm water. People can get sick if they inhale mist or vapor from contaminated water systems.

The veterans home has slightly more than 400 residents, with several dozen living independently but the remainder in an environment similar to assisted living or a nursing home, said Ryan Yantis, a Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman.

Residents are relying on bottled water and sponge baths as a precaution, and the facility has cleaned its hot water tanks and air conditioning system while shutting down its decorative and drinking water fountains and other potential sources of aerosolized water.

Those who exhibit symptoms such as breathing difficulties, coughing, fever and muscle aches are monitored closely, and infected patients are treated with antibiotics, Yantis said.

“We are going with an abundance of caution,” he said. “Unfortunately, all of these symptoms match normal, run-of-the-mill respiratory illnesses.”

Legionnaires’ disease has also been reported this summer at the San Quentin state prison in California and in New York, where 12 people died and more than 100 infected in an outbreak traced to bacteria found in a cooling tower on the roof of a Bronx hotel.

In Quincy, health officials are advising the elderly and those who are sick or with compromised immune systems, including organ transplant recipients, to not visit the veterans home, which consists of more than 25 separate buildings spread over 210 acres. Access by outsiders is otherwise not limited, and residents are not being restricted from leaving the home.

“When you’re a Vietnam veteran and you’re used to living off the field, you get used to it,” resident Tom Meleski told the Quincy Herald-Whig. “They’re taking every precaution for our safety and our well-being. It just requires a little more patience than you regularly have.”


Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at https://twitter.com/azagier .

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