BATAVIA – Tests at the Batavia High School cooling tower returned positive test results for the bacteria producing Legionnaires’ disease, but health officials appear no closer to determining the cause of the outbreak at a Batavia retirement home.
Batavia Public School District Communications Manager Holly Deitchman said the cooling tower at the high school was shut down on Sept. 24.
While initial tests were negative, top school district officials were informed by the Illinois Department of Public Health on Oct. 1 that a swab sample from the BHS cooling tower had tested positive for the Legionella bacteria, Deitchman said.
“We have been advised that it is safe for people to be at Batavia High School and have indicated that the cooling towers at BHS are a less likely source of the actual Legionnaire cases,” Deitchman said in a statement.
“IDPH does not have reason to believe that the potable water in the school, such as sinks and drinking fountains, is unsafe,” Deitchman stated.
A press release from the Kane County Health Department issued late in the afternoon on Oct. 1 reported that the bacteria had been detected both on the Covenant Living at the Holmstad campus and at a cooling tower away from the site.
“Results of environmental testing identified Legionella bacteria on Covenant’s campus and an off-site cooling tower not associated with Covenant Living,” according to the KCDH press release, without describing either location in any further detail.
“The cooling tower that tested positive for Legionella has been shut down and mitigation procedures have been instituted,” the release continued, without identifying the tower as being located at the high school..
Deitchman said the school district regularly cleans and tests the cooling towers, which are turned off at the end of the warm weather season.
“In an abundance of caution, this year, the district decided to shut down the cooling towers on Sept. 24,” Deitchman stated. “The cooling towers will be cleaned, disinfected, and tested before returning to service in the spring.”
Since Sept. 17, the BHS nursing staff has been monitoring students and teachers and been on the lookout for persons displaying symptoms.
“There has been no spike in absences or unusual respiratory symptoms,” Deitchman said.
IDPH said a new case of Legionaires’ disease at the Holmstad was confirmed Sept. 30, bringing the total number of cases to 15.
The new case is the first in two weeks, dashing hopes that the danger of the disease had passed.
The outbreak of the disease began in September, gradually totaling 12 cases at the Holmstad and later two more “community-based” cases nearby.
“An environmental assessment was conducted at each of the identified off-site cooling towers and equipment utilized on the Fabyan Parkway Bridge construction project,” according to KCDH.
“The Fabyan Parkway project did not test positive for Legionella,” the health department reported.
Late last week, Holmstad officials released a statement asserting that the cooling tower at the retirement center campus, which was a focus of the environmental testing probe, had been found to be free of living Legionella bacteria.
A cooling tower is a specialized heat exchanger used in the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems of large buildings or complexes. When air and water are brought into contact, a small volume of water is evaporated and the temperature of the circulating water is reduced.
As a result, cooling towers produce water droplets that can readily spread the Legionella bacteria over a wide area.
The sprawling Holmstad campus is located at the southwest corner of Route 31 and Fabyan Parkway. Across Fabyan Parkway to the north is the Campana building, but Mayor Jeff Schielke said that property has no cooling tower.
Stretching farther north along the west side of Route 31 are several Geneva laboratories and industrial properties.
To the immediate south of the Holmstad is the Servants of the Holy Heart of Mary campus, to the west are single-family homes and across Route 31 to the east is Fabyan Forest Preserve.
The Oct. 1 press release reported, apparently for the first time, that one of those cases was from Batavia and the other one from Geneva, within a half-mile of the Holmstad.
At a committee meeting that same evening, members of the Batavia City Council expressed frustration with the lack of information they received from the IDPH, contending that the situation improved only after they contacted local state lawmakers.
The Holmstad is located in the city’s 3rd Ward, and both that ward’s aldermen, Dan Chanzit and Elliot Meitzler, were particularly critical of the state agency’s handling of the affair.
Schielke has repeatedly suggested that the state health department lacks sufficient staff to carry out its duties.
The mayor and City Administrator Laura Newman continue to heap praise on the Holmstad staff, asserting that the retirement center has taken extraordinary steps to monitor the health of its residents and to follow all state and county health department directives.
Senior citizens and persons with chronic diseases including asthma are considered particularly at risk for Legionnaires’ disease, a serious lung infection presenting pneumonia-like symptoms.
“At the Holmstad we have a concentration of people who are susceptible to the disease,” Chanzit said, noting Holmstad residents are being monitored, whereas others with healthy immune systems living nearby might be exposed to the bacteria but never become aware.
Most healthy people do not get the disease after being exposed to the Legionella bacteria, according to the KCDH.