As hundreds of thousands of workers were sent home, and office buildings evacuated over coronavirus concerns, the CDC is warning about a potential secondary health concern when they come back: Legionnaires disease.
The CDC should know, they are dealing with a Legionella bacteria discovery itself in some of their leased buildings in the Atlanta area. Several buildings are now closed because the bacteria was found in their water system, likely because of the prolonged shutdown.
"During the recent closures at our leased space in Atlanta, working through the General Services Administration (GSA), CDC directed the landlord to take protective actions," the CDC said in a statement to CNN.
"Despite their best efforts, CDC has been notified 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."
The bacteria grows in warm or stagnant water, which is why there is concern as office buildings and restaurants sit abandoned during the pandemic. The bacteria is common in water, and is usually only a problem when the water becomes aerosolized and people breath it in; common sources are showers and water fountains. Legionella bacteria can cause deadly pneumonia.
Last year, the CDC reports, 4,294 cases were reported. So far this year, 1,813 cases have been reported.
It’s not known if the pandemic-caused shutdowns will worsen the problem or improve it; people are not gathering in hotels, offices or factory buildings as much, however thousands of miles of pipes in buildings are sitting empty and stagnating in the warm summer months.
"There is currently no nationwide surveillance of water systems for Legionella disease," Chris Edens, an epidemiologist on CDC's Legionella team, told CNN. He said state health departments that normally monitor and report cases of Legionella infection are tied up dealing with coronavirus.
To reduce the likelihood of the bacteria growing in pipes, keep cold water cold and hot water hot; Legionella bacteria grows between 80° and 120° Fahrenheit.
The CDC has recommendations on their website for building owners reopening after a prolonged shutdown.