Guests at an Ocean City hotel have been voluntarily relocated after three people who stayed there were hospitalized with Legionnaire's disease, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The three people developed the form of pneumonia about a week after their stay at the Plim Plaza Hotel, although investigators are still working to determine whether they contracted it there, according to the health department.

The 181-room hotel closed three days before the end of the season in order to test the water system and address any issues, said Betsy FauntLeRoy, director of marketing for the Harrison Group, which owns the Plim Plaza and nine other hotels.

"We have relocated all customers just as a precautionary effort," she said. "We decided to close a couple of days early so everyone would feel more safe and sound."

Each of the three visitors stayed at different times, she said.

In addition to the state inspections, the hotel has hired its own professionals to test and to respond to potential problems, FauntLeRoy said.

People with a history of smoking, those over the age of 50 and those with lung disease or weakened immune systems are at greater risk of contracting the disease, also known as legionellosis. The three patients were traveling separately and all were in those high-risk categories, said Dr. Lucy Wilson, a medical epidemiologist for the state health department.

"The building has a huge number of guests and high turnover," Wilson said. "It's hard in these situations to say something is definitely linked."

She said the hotel has been very cooperative, closing the hotel and contacting guests who had stayed there during the last month.

People contract the infection by breathing water mist that contains Legionella bacteria, which are naturally found in many water systems, according to the health department. It can't be transmitted person-to-person, Wilson said.

The bacteria like warm water, so showers and hot tubs would be one source of infected mist. "Hotels, hospitals, large buildings with complex water systems can be more difficult to manage," Wilson said. Also, hospitals often have large numbers of vulnerable patients.

Preliminary results from hotel water samples indicate the presence of the Legionella bacteria, but final results won't be available until the end of next week, according to DHMH.

The symptoms are very similar to those of pneumonia, with high fever, cough and shortness of breath. Some sufferers experience abdominal pain, diarrhea or body aches. They usually appear within two to 10 days of exposure, although Wilson advised travelers to be vigilant for 14 days after traveling.

Those who have stayed at the Plim Plaza after Sept. 1 and develop symptoms should contact their health providers, according to the health department.

On average, Maryland has approximately 100 to 130 legionellosis cases reported each year, the health department said. This year, 82 confirmed legionellosis cases have been reported in the state.

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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