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What Sports Travel Planners Need to Know About Florida's Latest Health Threat: Legionnaire's Disease

28 Jun, 2017

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Alert Comes in the Wake of Restoration of Tourism Funding for Visit Florida

With its travel advisory on Zika recently lifted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (although precautions remain in effect for the Miami-Dade area), Florida now confronts its next health and sports tourism challenge: Legionnaire’s Disease. Even worse news: it appears to have spread from a health club venue. Planners need to be ready with all the facts and information on precautions.

According to an article in the Orlando Sentinel, two LA Fitness health clubs in Orange County are under investigation after four customers were diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease. And although it has not been definitively proven that the four individuals contracted the illness at LA Fitness, use of the health club chain is the sole common denominator for all cases.

Legionnaires’ disease, a respiratory illness that takes the form of a severe type of pneumonia, is caused by Legionella bacteria. It is generally contracted through water systems (usually enclosed water systems, such as those in hot tubs, pools and showers ) or sometimes through air-conditioning systems. (It has also been found in cooling towers, misting stations and decorative water features.) It is generally not considered contagious person-to-person.

A milder form of the infection, known as Pontiac fever, may also present in patients who have been exposed to the bacteria.

Legionnaire’s disease is not commonly found in open water (lakes, streams, reservoirs, the ocean, etc.)

The illness is more common in summer and early fall but can happen any time of year, according to the CDC. According to officials, people at higher risk of contracting serious symptoms from the bacteria include those over the age of 50, and those with lung and respiratory diseases or with compromised immune systems.

Since many indoor sports events in the summer are held in venues such as gymnasiums, natatoriums, rec centers and health clubs – and since many athletes will wind up using Jacuzzis and showers afterwards – sports planners should acquaint themselves with information on Legionnaire’s disease. There is currently no vaccine for the illness, but there are a number of steps that can be taken to avoid it. The CDC has a page dedicated to these precautions.

Legionella grows best in warm water, like the water temperatures used in hot tubs – and warm temperatures make it hard to keep disinfectants, such as chlorine, at the levels needed to kill such germs. Therefore, sports planners should make sure the following steps are being carried out:

  • Disinfectant and other chemical levels in hot tubs should be checked regularly (at least twice per day, according to the CDC) and hot tubs should be cleaned as recommended by the manufacturer. Pool chlorine and chemical levels should be carefully monitored as well. In fact, because of possible Legionella bacteria, the two LA Fitness health clubs are being asked to use elevated levels of chlorine in spa areas and use extra filters on showers.

  • Planners should ask how often the water in hot tubs is changed – and whether this means a full or partial water change. If hot tubs will be getting increased use because of a sudden influx of athletes in the facility, it’s fair to ask for a stepped-up schedule of maintenance in order to stay ahead of any possible contamination.

  • Participants and their families should be educated about the symptoms of Legionnaire’s disease and also reassured that adequate precautions are being taken. If a sports event is being held in an area where cases have been reported, this information is critical.

The CDC notes that home and car air-conditioning units do not use water to cool the air, so they are not a risk for Legionella growth. Reports of Legionnaires’ disease and Legionella bacteria are not common overall, according to the CDC, which notes there were only about 6,000 cases of Legionnaires’ diseases reported in 2015 in the United States.

Unfortunately, according to the article, in addition to the four cases currently being investigated, LA Fitness in Central Florida has had two confirmed cases of the bacteria, including in 2008 at an LA Fitness in south downtown Orlando and in 2010 at an LA Fitness in the Waterford Lakes area. An LA Fitness health club in Ocoee was also investigated for signs of Legionella bacteria in April 2017, but results were negative. There was also a positive test for Legionella bacteria at Florida Hospital Orlando in late 2015 and again in early 2016. In June of 2017, a resident in a Jacksonville senior living facility was diagnosed with the disease.

Cases have also been scattered across the map this year; an NYPD officer in Harlem was found to be suffering from Legionnaire’s Disease and the Southern Nevada Health District investigated two cases of individuals who had stayed at the Rio Casino.

The news for Florida comes on the heels of a successful fight by Governor Rick Scott to restore funding to the Visit Florida campaign. Lawmakers had threatened to slash funding to the organization, as well as to Enterprise Florida, the business development arm, after accusations of a lack of transparency arose.

With funding restored, it remains to Florida to keep its tourists happy – and healthy.

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