More than a month and a half after the East Texas State Fair, Ruben Gutierrez’s family and friends said he died Friday after complications from Legionnaires’ disease.
He was 69.
Gutierrez, retired correctional officer, was a well-known volunteer, community leader and the precinct chair for the Smith County Democratic Party. He spent the entirety of the fair setting up and running the party’s booth in Harvey Convention Center. Family members said they believe he contracted Legionnaire’s disease, a noncommunicable lung disease that can be fatal, at the fair. A family friend confirmed he died Friday night.
His wife, Susan Gutierrez, told the Tyler Morning Telegraph in an interview that her husband spent about half of October in the hospital at Christus Trinity Mother Frances being treated for the Legionnaire’s Disease. After his initial treatment, he contracted sepsis and other complications, which caused him to go into kidney failure, but he bounced back, his wife said. He was released in mid October.
His wife believed he was out of the woods, but a few weeks later he was once again hospitalized a week ago, having contracted Clostridium difficile, or C-diff, a deadly gastrointestinal bug which can be caused by antibiotics. He was intubated at that time and underwent the surgery to remove his colon because of the infection.
“He is an amazing advocate for human rights, he fights for immigrants, he was there the whole week (at the fair) registering voters,” Susan Gutierrez said on Friday afternoon. “He organized the whole fair booth. He works with the Mexican consulate translating when they’re in town, he volunteers with Justice for Our Neighbors ... he’s just a good person.”
Last week the Northeast Texas Public Health District reported seven confirmed cases and five more suspected cases, possibly linked to the East Texas State Fair. Gutierrez was at the fair almost daily, his wife said. Legionnaires’ disease is spread by inhaling water droplets in the air and caused by the Legionella bacteria, according to NET Health. Breathing in the water droplets can come from water in the air, steam, humidifiers, cooling towers, sprinklers, lakes, rivers, streams and stagnant water.
The Northeast Texas Public Health District said they ruled out Harvey Convention Center as a possible source of where the disease began. It usually begins with a contaminated water source.
The family isn’t sure where he contracted the disease, but believe there could have been several sources.
“They said it was something in the fair, but he was there every day,” Susan Gutierrez said. “It could have been the A/C, it could have been the hot tubs, or (something else).”
The party’s booth was set up in Harvey Convention Center near a hot tub display that was running for the entirety of the fair. They also were situated below an air conditioning vent they say was causing some condensation because it was so hot outside and doors were often open.
Last month, The Associated Press reported four people died from an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease linked to a hot tub display at a fair. North Carolina officials told the AP that 141 cases of Legionnaires’ were confirmed in 19 North Carolina counties and multiple states. It says in addition to the three deaths, 94 people have been hospitalized.
Those deaths were from the Mountain State Fair in Fletcher, as the AP reported the health department found Legionella bacteria in one water sample at the fair and those who were diagnosed with the disease may have walked by the hot tub displays.
Ruben Gutierrez coordinated the party’s outreach effort and was at the fair and in Harvey Convention Center daily.
A city of Tyler spokesperson said Harvey Convention Center had been eliminated as a possible source in a statement on Oct. 31. The East Texas State Fair took place Sept. 20-29 in Tyler. However, that statement did not specify whether vendors or equipment not owned by the city had been looked into.
On Friday, NET Health spokesman Terrence Ates said the organization was not aware of changes in Gutierrez’s condition.
“NET Health has not seen nor learned anything related to the persons who were confirmed to have acquired the Legionnaires’ disease. We continue to test all possible sources of exposure, and our focus has been devoted to the investigation of the five probable cases, in order to progress our activities to learn if these persons may have been exposed to the bacteria,” Ates told the newspaper.
Ates said NET Health could not provide further comments on any confirmed people who contracted the illness. A spokesperson for the city of Tyler said they are cooperating fully with the investigation, but did not have more information than NET Health had publicly released.
On Friday afternoon as the family waited to see if Ruben Gutierrez would recover, they asked for prayers and blood donations for others in need. Donors can give blood at Carter BloodCare, 815 S. Baxter Ave.