Veterans' home eases some restrictions after deadly bacteria

QUINCY – The scent of chlorine permeates an Illinois veterans' home where nine elderly residents have died from a recent outbreak of Legionnaires' disease. Although a ban on showers has been lifted, hand-written signs still warn against drinking from fountains and stacked cases of bottled water line the hallways.

Amid the heightened concern about the water-borne bacteria that can cause a severe form of pneumonia, a semblance of day-to-day normalcy has returned to the sprawling complex founded in 1886 in the Mississippi River town of Quincy for veterans of the Mexican-American and Civil wars.

Disinfecting the home's drinking water with chlorine, cleaning its air conditioning system and hot water tanks and shutting down decorative and drinking fountains likely have stopped the spread of the disease, Gov. Bruce Rauner told The Associated Press. But he also acknowledged that "we'll probably have more deaths" given the illness' two-week incubation period.

The arrival of special filters to treat shower water has ended the requirement that residents only take sponge baths.

"From everything I can tell all appropriate steps have been taken and there's no further risk of further contagion," Rauner said Thursday. "The issue is who's been exposed."

Officials say it may still be several weeks before they can definitively pinpoint the source of the bacteria, which has sickened 45 people at the home — including five workers — in addition to the nine who died. Another four people, one of whom died, were diagnosed with the disease elsewhere in Quincy.

Residents largely stuck to their familiar routines Thursday, from afternoon bingo and physical therapy appointments to outdoor cigarette breaks and in-room games of solitaire.

The 129-year-old home's age and sheer size complicates the scientific sleuthing by state and local public health workers and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 210-acre campus consists of dozens of buildings, both modern and aging, with residents spread among seven different locations, from independent living units to nursing homes with Alzheimer's wings. Those who died lived in several different buildings, said Rick Gengenbacher, the home's marketing director.

"This is a very vast facility," said chief engineer Dave Clifford. "When you have something like this that's spread out over the entire facility, it's tough. There's no doubt about it."

While the home's aging infrastructure has hindered efforts to nail down the origins of the outbreak, Rauner said none of the facility's 400 residents are at risk of being infected now.

Legionnaires' disease is primarily contracted through inhaling bacteria that thrives in warm water. People can get sick if they breathe mist or vapor from contaminated water systems. An average of 200 people in Illinois are sickened from the disease each year, and CDC officials have said that the a spate of outbreaks in Illinois, California and New York so far this year is not unusual — although the number of patients involved is larger than that typically seen.

Marjorie Bisby, 87, said she was twice hospitalized after being diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease, initially for one week and then again for several days after the condition worsened upon returning to the place she's called home since 2007.

"I thought I was dying," said Bisby, a retired campground owner whose late husband served in the Army. "My body almost shut down."

The average age of those who died is 88, according to the state and county health department, and each had underlying health conditions that heightened their risk of exposure to the bacteria.

Janet Stout, a microbiologist who spent more than two decades as a Legionnaires' disease researcher at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said the pathogen thrives in nursing homes where water temperatures are tightly controlled to prevent scalding of residents.

She also cautioned that newer buildings aren't inherently safer, citing an investigation that found Legionnaires disease at a VA hospital within one month of its opening.


Associated Press reporter Sara Burnett in Chicago contributed to this report.


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