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2 residents contract Legionnaires' disease at Duluth senior apartment building

The Minnesota Department of Health is investigating the source of the exposure at Woodland Garden Apartments.

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DULUTH — The Minnesota Department of Health has issued a health advisory after two cases of Legionnaires' disease were contracted at Woodland Garden Apartments.

The cases, which were diagnosed in October and December, are believed to have the same source of exposure, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

"Two cases of Legionella with a common apartment building is concerning as outbreaks in this setting are relatively rare," MDH said in its health advisory issued Dec. 21.

Legionnaires' disease is a severe form of pneumonia caused by a bacterial infection. The bacteria, legionella, is found in soil and water and can multiply in water systems like large air conditioning system cooling towers, hot water heaters or tanks, fountains, pools or hot tubs.

The disease is especially dangerous for people who are age 50 or older, have weakened immune systems, have chronic lung conditions and/or smoke. Woodland Garden Apartments at 127 E. Calvary Road is a 60-unit affordable housing complex for seniors.

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"The disease carries high morbidity or mortality and this setting is a seniors-only apartment building, which increases the concern as advanced age is a major risk factor for Legionnaires’ disease," the health advisory from the Minnesota Department of Health read. "Given that Legionnaires’ disease can mimic so many other respiratory illnesses, MDH encourages testing in patients that may be connected to this location."

Doug Schultz, an information officer for the Minnesota Department of Health, said the state is investigating the source of the exposure so the hazard can be eliminated to prevent additional illnesses. The building is working with a legionella consultant to test water and conduct an environmental assessment.

Residents at Woodland Garden Apartments have also been recommended ways to decrease their risk of inhaling water and to prevent the spread of airborne particles. Symptoms of the bacterial pneumonia have been shared with the facility so residents with symptoms can be tested with a legionella urinary antigen test.

According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of Legionnares' disease usually develop two to 10 days after exposure to legionella bacteria. The following are symptoms, which will progress over a period of a few days:

  • Headache;
  • Muscle aches;
  • Fever that may be 104 degrees or higher;
  • Cough, which might bring up mucus and sometimes blood;
  • Shortness of breath;
  • Chest pain;
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea;
  • Confusion or other mental changes.

Legionnaires' disease primarily affects the lungs, but it occasionally can cause infections in wounds and in other parts of the body, including the heart. Pontiac fever, a mild form of Legionnaires' disease, does not infect the lungs, but can produce fever, chills, headache and muscle aches. Symptoms usually clear within two to five days.
Schultz said the two Legionnaires' cases at Woodland Garden Apartments are the only recent cases in Duluth. He said there are typically 100-150 cases of the disease found annually in Minnesota.

Woodland Garden Apartments management did not respond to requests for comment.

This story's headline was updated at 3 p.m. Jan. 5 to reflect that the facility is an apartment building, not a nursing home. It was originally posted at 11:35 a.m. Jan. 5. The News Tribune regrets the error.

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Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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