NEW FOR THURSDAY: Legionella Suspected At North OC Condo

OCEAN CITY — The presence of the Legionella, a bacteria that can cause a type of pneumonia called Legionnaire’s Disease, has been detected at a north-end Ocean City condominium, marking the second time in less than a year the illness has surfaced at a resort lodging facility.

Two people, both of whom visited Ocean City and stayed at the Sea Watch Condominiums in north Ocean City, have been diagnosed with symptoms of Legionnaire’s Disease. One individual was diagnosed with the illness this spring after staying at the Sea Watch, while the other was diagnosed last fall after a visit to the resort, which included a stay at the north-end Ocean City condominium.

The common denominator in both cases has been the Sea Watch, although it remains uncertain if either or both of the victims contracted the illness while staying at the vast condominium complex. What is certain, however, is the condo’s water systems were inspected recently after the second case came to light and certain elements of the facility’s water systems tested positive for the presence of the bacteria.

According to Worcester County Health Department Nursing Manager for Communicable Disease Debra Stevens, any time an individual is diagnosed with Legionnaire’s, the case is reported to the local health department where the diagnosis took place. The local health department then investigates possible sources and examines the patient’s recent travel history. If the inflicted individual has traveled recently, the health department in the jurisdiction where the patient was diagnosed contacts the corresponding health department in the area where the person has traveled.

In the most recent case this spring, the Worcester County Health Department was alerted an individual diagnosed with Legionnaire’s had traveled to Ocean City and had stayed at the Sea Watch for at least a portion of the trip to the resort. The county health department was then able to establish a connection between a similar case reported last fall in which the diagnosed individual had also visited Ocean City and stayed for a time at the Sea Watch.

“They ask the diagnosed individuals if they’ve done any traveling recently and this most recent case reported traveling to Ocean City and staying at the Sea Watch,” said Stevens. “We had a case in the fall, also at the Sea Watch, so we established a possible connection. We contacted the Sea Watch and they tested their water systems and some of the tests came back positive for the presence of the bacteria.”

Although no formal public advisory has been issued by the health department, the Sea Watch management group has been instructed to notify residents and visitors of the presence of the potentially harmful bacteria in some of the facility’s water systems. Last Tuesday, the Sea Watch management group began providing mandatory public notice to condo owners and their guests. Several local real estate companies also began providing notice to future reservations at the condo of the ongoing issue.

“There were never any closures,” said Stevens. “We just want to make sure people are aware of the risks.”

While the common denominator in the reported cases is the Sea Watch, and there were subsequent positive tests for Legionella at the condo building, Stevens said there remains a remote possibility the two cases are not linked.

“It’s important to note the symptoms usually appear two to 14 days after exposure,” she said. “Legionella has a 10-12-day incubation period and the two cases were not at the Sea Watch during the entire incubation period. The Sea Watch is the common denominator and the positive tests point to that, but it is possible they picked up the bacteria somewhere else.”

In the meantime, the Sea Watch management group is working with a noted water treatment specialist to identify the source and develop and implement a remediation plan.

“The Sea Watch has been asked to consult with a water expert and they’re in the process of having everything evaluated,” said Stevens. “After the remediation, the Sea Watch and the contractor will be required to test the water every two weeks for three months and then once a month for three months. We won’t do the testing, they do. We will ask that they prove to us the treatment was effective.”

Meanwhile, while there are potential risks at the condominium, there have not been any more reported cases and the situation can hardly be classified as an outbreak. Stevens said Legionella is fairly common with 8,000 to 18,000 people hospitalized with the disease each year in the U.S. The disease is caused by inhaling mist from water containing the bacteria, which can be found in many man-made and natural water systems.

In most cases, the illness is treatable with antibiotics, but in some cases, like pneumonia, it can be fatal. Certain at-risk groups are more likely to become seriously ill when infected with Legionella, including the elderly, people with chronic lung disease and individuals with weakened immune systems. The symptoms resemble more common strains of pneumonia and those who feel they are experiencing symptoms are urged to see their primary care provider.

The appearance of Legionella at the Sea Watch comes just about eight months after the most recent reported case in Ocean City last fall. Last October, the presence of Legionella was confirmed in the water system of the Plim Plaza Hotel on the Boardwalk after at least six individuals who had stayed at the hotel during the late summer months was diagnosed with the disease. One of the victims, an elderly out-of-state guest at the hotel, later succumbed to the disease.