The North Carolina Department of Health has traced an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease to the North Carolina Mountain State Fair that ran from September 6 to 15. Specifically, the most likely source of infection has been identified as contaminated hot tubs inside the Davis Event Center. The department says 124 cases have been reported so far.
Legionella bacteria occurs naturally in fresh water, but it can also thrive and spread through warm-water sources. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), faulty plumbing systems, contaminated air conditioning units, cooling towers, and hot tubs are common sources where the bacteria can be heavily concentrated. Infections with the bacteria can cause a mild, flu-like illness called Pontiac fever or a serious pneumonia-like lung infection known as Legionnaires’ disease.
The majority of cases in this outbreak (116) are the Legionnaires’ kind. Eighty-one people have been hospitalized, and at least one death has been reported. The disease’s incubation period of 2-10 days has now lapsed since the end of the fair, so officials don’t expect the number of cases to increase much.
The state Division of Public Health was alerted to a sudden spike in Legionnaire’s disease cases in Buncombe and Henderson counties about a week after the fair ended. A survey of the Legionnaires’ patients showed that people diagnosed with the disease likely visited the event center and walked by the hot tub displays. The analysis also showed people who got sick were much more likely to have visited in the last five days of the fair.
To get Legionnaires’ disease or Pontiac fever, you have to breathe in Legionella in aerosolized water, meaning small droplets like mists or vapors. Environmental testing has identified the bacteria in a water sample at the location. However, it’s still possible there might have been other sources of contaminated aerosolized water contributing to the outbreak. Results are still pending from other samples taken in the investigation.