Legionnaires' Disease In Atlanta: The Impacts On Health and Tourism

Aug 5, 2019

Eleven confirmed cases of Legionnaires’ disease have been linked to the Sheraton Atlanta, with another 55 cases considered “probable” according to the Georgia Department of Health.

The hotel voluntarily closed its doors for testing on July 15, with a proposed reopening on Aug. 11 at the earliest. That places the reopening very close to Dragon Con scheduled for Labor Day weekend.


Dr. Allison Chamberlain, research assistant professor of epidemiology from Emory University’s School of Public Health, joined On Second Thought to explain how Legionnaires’ disease is contracted and what precautions guests can take when staying in a hotel.

Amy Wenk, reporter at the Atlanta Business Chronicle, also joined the conversation to share her research into the economic impacts of the outbreak.

The disease was first named Legionnaires' by two AP reporters covering mysterious deaths among attendees of an American Legion conference back in 1976.

Interview Highlights

On how one contracts Legionnaires’ disease

Dr. Allison Chamberlain: A person contracts Legionnaires’ disease when they breathe in water vapor that contains Legionella bacteria. And what happens is if a person has certain risk factors — primarily, being over the age of 50, immunocompromised, having underlying lung conditions, (then) they're more susceptible to complications from Legionnaires’ disease and can have very serious complications. But, you get it by breathing in this water vapor that has the bacteria in it. 

It can be lethal. About five to 15% of cases will die, unfortunately, from this disease.

On the symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease

Chamberlain: Some of the symptoms are shortness of breath fatigue headache fever sometimes nausea and cough primarily after the first few days.

On why hotels are a common place for Legionella bacteria

Chamberlain: There's a lot of factors that can lead to the Legionella bacteria growing in premise plumbing, which is what can happen in large buildings like hotels. And the reason why it can happen more often in those large buildings is that there's a lot of plumbing. There's a lot of plumbing lines. There's a lot of places for water to be aerosolized like showerheads, spas, saunas, pools, hot tubs. Those are types of sources for water to be vaporized. And in that case, hotels are sort of a problem area for this particular bacteria. 

On the economic impact of the outbreak at the Sheraton Atlanta Hotel Downtown

Amy Wenk: The Sheraton is really a critical component of Atlanta's Downtown convention business. It's the city's sixth largest hotel. It's got nearly 800 rooms; so, this is where people are staying for the largest conventions and events that come to the city.

If it's closed about a month — I did some rough calculations based on average hotel occupancy and room rates — it’s easily losing $1 million in gross revenue if not closer to $2 million.

But, really, it's more than just the impact of this lost business. If the problem due to the outbreak is at the hotel, there are going to be costs to repair that and they're going to have to do it in a way that restores the confidence of people who say they're moving forward.

The unknown impact is in the reputation of the hotel. Anybody who Googles this hotel from this point on is going to come up with these news reports. So, what's the long-term effect of that is their reputation.

On the impact to conventions such as Dragon Con

Wenk: Thankfully, there are 10,000 hotel rooms Downtown, so the convention business should be OK. If you want to talk a little bit about Dragon Con upcoming — that’s a big event. It's the city's third-largest event. 85,000 people come to that. It has an economic impact of $80 million and the Sheraton has been a host hotel for that event since 2007.

I spoke with a spokesman for Dragon Con and they're really hopeful that the hotel reopens. They rely on the Sheraton. It not only hosts their guests but also some of their programming, their registration area. So, if everything is open and safe for guests, they hope to move forward with the Sheraton. If not, they do have contingency plans in place.

On the meaning of “probable” cases of Legionnaires’ disease from the outbreak

Chamberlain: That means that these are individuals who likely, most of them, probably stayed at the hotel at some point prior to the hotel's closing, and that public health officials and physicians are investigating to see if their symptoms that might be attributable to some type of pneumonia are in fact Legionnaires’ disease. So, they're watching them. They're probably waiting on some laboratory tests to see if they do indeed have confirmed Legionnaires’ disease.

On what hotels can do to prevent this type of outbreak

Chamberlain: Hotels can have proactive water management plans in place to routinely test their water. Water safety parameters like P.H., temperature, chlorine levels as well as the Legionella bacteria itself. It’s really important to routinely test for that bacteria so they can have those types of things in place prior. But, if they find themselves in a situation like this, then the best thing to do is to do what the Sheraton did and close and do the testing that needs to be done. What they'll do is they'll take water samples from all across the hotel. They'll take it from the farthest rooms away to the spas to the pools and they'll work with most likely a third-party company to test those samples and see if they can actually find the bacteria and hopefully find where the majority of it might be in you know in the hotel.

On how Legionnaires’ disease is treated

Chamberlain: A person who is diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease — because it's a type of pneumonia caused by a bacteria — most antibiotics that are routinely given for pneumonia can treat Legionnaires’ disease.

On the impact to Sheraton employees while the hotel is closed

Wenk: A statement from the hotel management company said that they were doing everything they could to either redeploy their employees to other hotels that they have in the area or have those employees work in offsite locations. And this hotels management company has several other Georgia properties including the Whitley hotel in Buckhead, the hotel at Avalon in Alpharetta, Chateau Elan. So, there is opportunities for those workers in the area to be reassigned. 

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length

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