Credit: (Janice Haney Carr/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via AP)
This image shows a large grouping of Legionella pneumophila bacteria (Legionnaires’ disease).

It could be several weeks until the public knows more about a possible outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in northern New Jersey — in the same area where seven cases were diagnosed in December. State officials urged residents to look out for symptoms of this water-borne form of pneumonia.

The state Department of Health announced last week it was investigating as many as nine potential cases of Legionnaires’ in Passaic County and another in Bergen County, the first of which was reported in early June. The department’s deputy communications director, Nancy Kearney, said the work to identify the possible sources of transmission continues, adding, “These investigations can be lengthy, and any future updates may not become available for several weeks.”

Acting state Health Commissioner Dr. Kaitlan Baston said last week in a statement that the risk of contracting Legionnaires’ is low for people who live in, or recently visited, these counties. But residents should watch for possible symptoms and get tested immediately if they are concerned about infection, she said. “Early diagnosis is key to effectively treating Legionnaires’ disease,” Baston said.

Bacterial breeding grounds

Legionnaires’ disease — first discovered in 1976 when members of the American Legion became sick when attending a convention in Philadelphia — is a respiratory infection that is not transmitted from person to person. People can get sick when they inhale air that contains tiny droplets of water with infected Legionella bacteria. Symptoms, which are similar to those for COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses, can take up to two weeks to develop and include fever, cough, chills, breathing problems, and head and muscle aches.

Air-conditioning units in larger buildings, hot tubs, decorative fountains and plumbing systems can exacerbate the spread of Legionnaires’ disease, experts note, and federal data shows more cases are reported in the summer and early fall. Older people, smokers and those with lung conditions are at higher risk. The disease can be treated with antibiotics.

New Jersey recorded 246 cases of Legionnaires’ in 2021 — at least 30 of whom died — and has seen as many as 375 cases some years. That included at least nine cases in Hamilton Township during the summer of 2021, including three who died, according to media reports.

Data for 2022 was not available from the health department Monday, although NJ Spotlight News reported in March that at least seven cases were confirmed among residents of Bergen and Passaic counties in December 2022. An investigation at that time did not find the source of the infection, the department said.

‘These investigations can be lengthy, and any future updates may not become available for several weeks.’ — Nancy Kearney, Department of Health

At least 10 other cases — and two or more fatalities — have been reported in Hamilton Township since August 2022, all in homes that state officials said were served by Trenton Water Works. The health department worked with the water utility for months to identify the source of the bacteria and regular updates are available on the Trenton Water Works website.

COVID-19 comeback?

COVID-19 is also reemerging in some places nationwide, with case numbers — acknowledged to be an undercount, given the popularity of home tests that do not require users to report results — nearly doubling since a low point in early June. Hospital admissions have been slower to rise, ticking up by about 10% weekly most recently.

So far New Jersey seems to have escaped any major COVID-19 impacts, however. Health department reports indicate related hospitalizations have remained low statewide since mid-March, when a handful of South Jersey counties had medium-level hospitalizations from COVID-19.

“Residents should continue to be aware of their own risk and act accordingly, especially if they are immunocompromised, get tested if they feel ill or have symptoms, and stay home and get treated when sick. And as always, if an individual has not been vaccinated, we encourage them to get the COVID-19 vaccine and get the updated vaccine when it becomes available to gain the greatest protection,” the health department’s Nancy Kearney said Monday.

Guarding against other communicable diseases

COVID-19 and Legionnaires’ are far from the only communicable diseases tracked by the state health department. Working with local environmental agencies and mosquito-control units, the state also identifies multiple diseases transmitted by insects, like ticks with Lyme disease and mosquitoes with West Nile virus. Only one West Nile case has been reported so far this year — a man in Camden County — while 20 cases were identified in 2022, the data shows. Cases of malaria and dengue fever are also down this year.

Many tickborne diseases are also down compared to last year, according to the department’s tracking, except for Lyme disease. Doctors have already reported nearly 75% of the infections recorded during all of 2022, including more than 300 cases a week for much of July, although diagnoses appear to now be trending down.

— Graphic by Genesis Obando

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