Five guests who stayed at a prominent downtown Atlanta hotel have become sick with Legionnaires' disease, prompting an investigation of the hotel on Monday, officials said.
"Based on epidemiological evidence we have an outbreak among people who stayed at the [Sheraton Atlanta] during the same time period," said Nancy Nydam, director of communications at Georgia Department of Public Health, on Tuesday.
Legionnaires' is a serious form of pneumonia that is noncontagious. Guests who complained of lung problems and were later diagnosed with Legionnaires' had attended a convention at the Atlanta hotel a couple of weeks ago.
The bacterium causing Legionnaires' has not yet been confirmed at the hotel, which has hired outside experts to conduct testing.
The hotel has voluntarily shuttered its doors until the source of infection is found and remediation is complete, Nydam said. More than 400 guests have been relocated to nearby hotels, CNN affiliate WSB-TV reported.
Thousands infected each year
About one in 10 people who get sick from Legionnaires' disease will die, a recent government report found.
The disease infects an estimated 10,000 to 18,000 people in the United States each year. People can get sick when they breathe in mist or accidentally swallow water into the lungs containing the bacteria that causes the lung infection. It can be treated with antibiotics, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The hotel's general manager, Ken Peduzzi, said that "the health and safety of our guests is our greatest priority."
The hotel is working with the state health department as well as Fulton County Board of Health and environmental specialists to test for the bacteria, Georgia's health department said. The Sheraton Atlanta has closed "out of an abundance of caution ... while we await the results," Peduzzi said.
"This is the typical way these situations as handled since the assessment and testing can be complicated," according to Nydam. The state health department plus "Fulton County Board of Health epidemiologists and environmental health staff will work with them on the next steps in the investigation (technical assessment, sampling plan and submission)," she added.
In addition to relocating current guests to nearby hotels, Sheraton is also reaching out to guests with upcoming reservations "to assist in directing them to other nearby hotels," according to Peduzzi.
James Francey, one of more than 400 relocated guests, told WSB: "This a hazard of travel ... so OK it happens. The CDC is here in town, so that's great."
Legionnaires' begins with a patient feeling tired and weak, according to the educational organization Legionella.org . Other common symptoms include coughing, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, headaches, muscle aches, chest pain and shortness of breath. The incubation period -- the time it takes for symptoms to appear after a person is infected with the bacteria causing the disease -- is from 2 to 10 days.
Described as a "severe, often lethal, form of pneumonia," Legionnaires' can lead to treatment in an intensive care unit, according to Legionella.org. Some symptoms may be long-term: One study showed that three quarters of survivors continued to feel tired, 66% had neurologic symptoms and 63% had neuromuscular symptoms months after their diagnosis.
Scientists dubbed the illness "Legionnaires' disease" following an outbreak in Philadelphia in 1976, largely among people attending a state convention of the American Legion, according to the CDC. Subsequently, the bacterium causing the illness was named Legionella pneumophila.
State epidemiologist Cherie Drenzek told WSB that past outbreaks have been associated with "shower heads, hot tubs, perhaps even ... decorative fountains." Drenzek added that the Sheraton is also working on the filtration system in the hotel's swimming pool.