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EDITORIAL: State can't sit on Legionnaires' information

If you ever needed a good example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, look to the American Legion and July 1976.

During the summer of our nation’s bicentennial Pennsylvania’s state American Legion held a convention in the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. The grand old facility, which in the early 20th century had been called the nation’s most luxurious, is still in existence today.

It’s likely that most of us don’t remember the name of the hotel. But we do remember the previously unheard of disease that killed 29 people who had been at the Legion gathering.

The illness got the name "Legionnaires’ Disease.” The Legion didn’t cause the illness, but it got the dubious (dis)honor of lending the organization’s name to it. And when scientists isolated the bacteria responsible, it was named Legionella.

Wrong place. Wrong time for the American Legion.

Nearly 200 people – mostly men – became ill after attending the convention. It took a few months to determine the source. In the meantime lots of people around the country were scared.

Recall that this was a time when many people still had a fresh memory of polio among us. Few computers were around and obtaining information wasn’t as easy as going on the Internet and doing a Google search. What people found out about this mystery disease came from reading the local newspaper or watching the national evening news broadcasts.

What people had a lot of were unanswered questions. And fears.

Fast forward to 2014 in Wilson County. We know a lot more about Legionnaires’. Fatalities are rare unless undetected for too long. We understand that it can’t be transmitted person-to-person. And we know this strain of bacteria lives in water.

The places where Legionella can thrive are many: air cooling systems, humidifiers, whirlpool spas, showers, fountains and misting nozzles. There is a good chance most all of us have been exposed to Legionella at one time or another in their lives. Fortunately our bodies’ immune system keeps us from harm. But not everyone, as the 11 recent cases here shows.

And most of us are still not immune to a fear of the unknown.

Since earlier in June the number of cases in Wilson went from one to 11 and from one location to more. Last year 12 percent of all the Legionnaires cases reported in the entire state of North Carolina were in Wilson County.

We commend our local Department of Health for reacting quickly to the early reported cases and getting the word out to the public as quickly as possible. Wilson Pines, where most of the cases have been linked, was also quick to take action.

However, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services doesn’t seem to have responded with the same sense of urgency. It received its first confirmation of a Legionnaires’ case back on June 19 at the state-run Longleaf-Neuro Medical Treatment Center.

At that point it was just one known case there and apparently policy is to not declare an outbreak until you have two confirmed cases at one location. The state didn’t get that second report until last Friday, June 27, letting the public know via press release on Saturday.

We are sure there was some reason for that policy, but we don’t really understand it. When there are already reports of Legionnaires in the same community we don’t see the benefit to the public of withholding information about another location until a second case happens in that same second facility. Enough cases have already been reported in a small enough area, at least in our mind.

We know that state health officials have been engaged in private conversations with people in our community.

With 11 reports so far (tying last year’s number already), Wilson residents understandably have anxiety about the source of these cases.

Most times the best way to prevent concern is simply by being as open as possible about a problem as quickly as possible. Information quells fear. It doesn’t work the other way around.

The Wilson County Health Department has been quick so far with the information. The state is going to have to catch up.

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It is alarming. As a former employee, now retired, from Wilson Pines aka Britthaven, I find it rather unusual that the State did not arrive immediately. They are usually quick on the draw in these types of situations. I was also wondering if there are any duplicate employees as in working at both places. Just wondering. I know that was not unusual to have a nurse work full time at one place and part time at another. I also know that they had problems in the courtyard with sinking ground and wonder if this has anything to do with a contamination in the water. A portion of the building was sitting over the sink hole, and they never could figure out what was going on with the grease back up in the back of the building. Hope this helps. And hope they get the problem under control.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014 at 4:26 PM
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