Water is being tested at Roxbury Correctional Institution south of Hagerstown after an inmate was taken to a Baltimore hospital to be treated for Legionnaires’ disease, according to a state prison official.
The inmate, who was in his 40s, was taken to Bon Secours Hospital in Baltimore from RCI with pneumonia that tested positive for the legionella bacteria, said Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
“Due to the two- to 14-day incubation period of the bacteria, state health officials believe he contracted it at RCI,” Vernarelli wrote in an email. “This inmate ... is already out of the city hospital and is housed at our DPSCS Baltimore infirmary.”
Legionnaires’ disease takes its name from an outbreak in 1976 at the Pennsylvania American Legion convention held at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia. The bacterium believed to be responsible is found in soil and grows in water, such as air-conditioning ducts, storage tanks and rivers.
Vernarelli said there was no need to panic. As far as the prison system knows, no other inmates have been infected, he said.
“This illness is not transmitted from person to person; it is not contagious,” he said. “It appears to involve one inmate who is no longer in the region .... The facility got on top of this as soon as it was notified by state health officials that there was a potential for Legionnaires’.”
He said custody and security staff members, regional medical, and prison and regional maintenance personnel are working together to ensure smooth operations at the prison.
Meanwhile, prison officials will wait for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to test the Roxbury water source, Vernarelli said.
He said the results might not be available for several days.
As a precaution, the hot water in the housing unit where the inmate was located has been shut off, and inmates won’t be showering for the time being, Vernarelli said.
Dr. Mohammed Ali, medical director of Meritus Health’s Infectious Disease Program, said humans can contract legionella when they inhale the mist or vapors from infected water.
“Not everyone who inhales the vapors from the infected waters gets the disease — very few of them do get it,” Ali said.
The chance of getting the disease increases if a person has a weak immune system, he said.
The symptoms include fever, headaches, body pains, coughing and shortness of breath, he said. The chance of the disease becoming lethal rises if pneumonia sets in.
“These patients need to be hospitalized immediately,” Ali said. “They need to be checked for legionella and then treated immediately.”
He said patients often respond well to treatment, but the disease has a 5 percent to 30 percent mortality rate for people with severe cases.
“It is a very treatable disease,” Ali said. “But if it is not treated properly, it can have a high mortality rate.”
He said several cases are diagnosed locally each year, and about 8,000 cases are reported annually in the United States.