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Hagerstown inmate tests positive for Legionnaires' disease

An inmate at a Western Maryland state prison tested positive for the bacterium that causes Legionnaires' disease, prompting an investigation of the facility's water and air-conditioning systems, corrections officials said Friday.

The inmate, a man in his 40s, had been sent from Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown to Bon Secours Hospital in Baltimore, where he was found to be carrying legionella bacteria. The bacteria are found in warm water and can cause Legionnaires' disease, marked by a cough, high fever, muscle aches and headache.

The disease is contracted by breathing in the bacteria but is not contagious.

It is believed the inmate became infected while at the prison. Prison officials have shut off the hot-water system in the housing unit where the inmate was staying, and state health officials are awaiting test results on water taken from the facility's pipes and from cooling systems.

"This is not a panic situation," Mark Vernarelli, a state corrections spokesman, said in an email.

The inmate is being housed at a state corrections infirmary in Baltimore. No other inmates are known to be ill, officials said.

The disease develops with two to 14 days of exposure to the bacteria, typically inhaled in mist. Infections most often occur in people who already are sick or have compromised immune systems.

Officials said inmates will not be allowed to shower in the area where the inmate was staying until testing is done.

If the bacterium is found in the water system, it's possible to fight it with chlorination or intense heating of the water, they said.

State health officials took samples of water from the building Thursday for culturing in a lab, said Dr. David Blythe, a medical epidemiologist for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Because the cultures can take as many as 10 to 14 days, it might be that long before the state finds out whether the bacterium is present.

Legionella bacteria are "all around us" in both natural and man-made water systems, Blythe said, but can pose a health threat at concentrated levels.

The Roxbury facility opened in December 1983 and is designed to house up to 1,771 inmates. A periodic report on prison facilities by a Washington County grand jury, required by state law, found the prison to be "clean and orderly" after a December 2011 tour.

State Sen. Chris Shank, a Republican whose district includes the prison, called it one of the state's "most new and well-kept and well-maintained" correctional facilities.

"I've never noticed any problems before, and I've been to a lot of prisons in the state system," Shank said.

Several state correctional facilities date to earlier than 1950, including the Maryland Correctional Institute, also in Hagerstown.

Representatives from the Maryland chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees who work with Roxbury staff said they haven't heard any concerns about health and safety conditions there, said Jeff Pittman, a union spokesman.

Nine current or former officers at Roxbury were indicted in February in connection with two assaults on an inmate and obstruction of justice, some facing conspiracy charges and some facing both civil rights and conspiracy charges. Several have pleaded guilty.



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