Some East Texas State Fair attendees this year may have been exposed to the sometimes fatal Legionnaires’ disease.
So far, seven people in East Texas have been diagnosed with the disease and hospitals in the area have identified five others with symptoms, George Roberts, NET Health CEO, said Thursday morning.
Roberts said state health investigators have determined that all who are sick attended the East Texas State Fair that took place Sept. 20-29 in Tyler. If exposed to the disease, attendees already would have exhibited symptoms. Officials said total fair attendance was more than 257,000 visitors based on daily counts.
The health district is urging anyone who attended the fair this year and is sick with Legionnaires’ symptoms to contact their health care provider immediately. Legionnaires’ disease mimics pneumonia. Symptoms include fever and difficulty breathing.
A test determines whether a sick person has been infected by the Legionella bacteria, Roberts said.
Legionnaires’ disease is spread by inhaling water droplets in the air and caused by the Legionella bacteria, according to a NET Health news release sent out Thursday. Breathing in the water droplets can come from water in the air, steam, humidifier, cooling tower, sprinklers, lakes, rivers, streams and stagnant water. It cannot be spread from person to person, meaning it is noncommunicable.
Roberts said it is possible that more people may have the disease. Those older than 50 and who have respiratory problems are most likely to contract Legionnaires’ disease.
Roberts said most people who are healthy, even if they were exposed to the contaminated water droplets, likely would not become sick.
Health professionals are in the process of trying to determine the source of the disease at the fairgrounds.
The city-owned Harvey Convention Center has been eliminated as the source, according to a statement released by the city.
“NET Health and state officials conducted an investigation of the facility to test the water sources at Harvey Hall as the disease is spread through water particles,” the statement read. “Public health officials confirmed the facility came back negative for any conditions that would allow for Legionnaires’ disease to be present.”
East Texas State Fair also uses Rose Garden Center and other buildings and had dozens of food vendors.
Within a week’s time five cases were noticed by health officials. Roberts said red flags come up when there are two or more cases, saying it seems unusual.
Jason Geslois, epidemiologist with NET Health, said he and other health officials ask patients about where they have traveled recently to find a common denominator of the outbreak’s source.
The process of narrowing down the location within the fair is ongoing, but the time frame to become infected was Sept. 20 to 29 with symptoms potentially showing within two to 10 days of exposure.
“Now we narrow down our scope a little further,” Roberts said. “That’s why we’re trying to track this down.”
John Sykes, East Texas State Fair CEO, said he was made aware of reported cases by NET Health and he is working with the district to determine the exact source.
“I don’t like to speculate. We’ve got to find the source. This is a real surprise to us,” Sykes said.
Sykes said health and safety is a top priority for the fair every year.
“I think we will be even more vigilant,” he said. “We will pay closer attention to making sure we have the safest (places).”
He added that he and health officials are looking at all water sources, such as hot tubs and humidifiers.
“Let’s pray nobody else gets sick,” Sykes said. “We need to stay aware. I just want people to be safe.”
NET Health cannot release the identity or any other information about the confirmed or suspected patients.
Symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease could be cough, high fever, weakness, muscle aches, headaches, and shortness of breath. Legionnaires’ disease is treated with antibiotics, and most people who are sick may need to be hospitalized but will recover fully.
The following groups of people are at a higher risk of contracting Legionnaires’ disease: people over the age of 50, current or former smokers, people with chronic lung disease like emphysema or COPD and those with weakened immune systems due to a previous disease or from medication.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 out of 10 people with Legionnaires’ disease will die from the infection.
For those who live in the Northeast Texas region and have questions about Legionnaires’ disease, call Disease Surveillance Division at NET Health at 903-595-1350.
Danny Mogle contributed to the story.