Legionnaires' disease cluster in NJ: 14 cases, 1 death in Union County

TRENTON, New Jersey (WABC) -- The New Jersey Department of Health is investigating a cluster of Legionnaires' disease cases in Union County, with 14 confirmed cases and one death.

The cases were reported to the department between February 3 and February 26, and health officials are working with the local health departments in Union County to investigate the cluster.

The individual who died was a male resident of Union County in his late 60s.

"This is a continuing investigation," New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said. "The risk to anyone who lives in Union County is very small. Out of an abundance of caution, the department recommends that individuals who live in Union County who become ill with pneumonia-like/respiratory symptoms, such as fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches, and headache visit their healthcare provider."

As it can take up to two weeks for symptoms to develop, officials recommend that those who develop symptoms within two weeks of being in Union County also seek medical attention.

The state has alerted healthcare providers in the area. Legionnaires' disease is treatable with antibiotics.

RELATED | What you need to know about Legionnaires' disease

The risk of Legionnaires' disease among residents or recent visitors to Union County is low. Most healthy people exposed to Legionella do not develop Legionnaires' disease.

People over the age of 50, especially those who smoke cigarettes, or those with certain medical conditions, including weakened immune systems, chronic lung disease or other chronic health conditions, are at increased risk for Legionnaires' disease.

The state receives approximately 250 to 350 reports of Legionnaires' disease each year.

Legionnaires' disease is a type of pneumonia (lung infection) caused by bacteria called Legionella. People can get Legionnaires' disease by breathing in aerosolized (small droplets) water containing Legionella bacteria.

Aerosolized water can come from cooling towers (air-conditioning units for large buildings), hot tubs, cooling misters, decorative fountains, and plumbing systems. Less commonly, people can get sick by aspiration of tap water containing Legionella. This happens when water accidently goes into the lungs while drinking ("goes down the wrong pipe").

People at increased risk of aspiration include those with swallowing difficulties. Home A/C units do not use water to cool, so these home units do not aerosolize water and are not a risk for Legionella growth. Legionnaires' disease is not spread person to person.

As part of the continuing investigation, the department is conducting epidemiologic and environmental investigations to identify possible sources of exposures to the bacteria, conducting environmental sampling for Legionella, and recommending environmental remediation strategies to prevent further transmission of Legionella.

RELATED | Scarsdale School District reports Legionella bacteria found in water at 2 schools

Some potential sources have been identified, and remediation has begun at those sites, but other sources may be identified as part of the ongoing investigation.

Investigations into these types of Legionnaires' clusters are complex. It is often not possible to determine the origin of the bacteria that infected people.

For more information please visit www.nj.gov/health/cd/topics/legion.shtml which includes Frequently Asked Questions on Legionnaires' disease.

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