Maryland health officials have alerted their counterparts in New York that a Social Security Administration manager may have contracted Legionnaires' disease while vacationing in upstate New York rather than while at work in Woodlawn.
Thousands of Social Security Administration employees returned to work yesterday at a Woodlawn building closed during the weekend as a precaution to prevent spread of the disease, which causes severe pneumonia. Most people get the ailment by inhaling mist from a contaminated water source, such as air-conditioning cooling towers.
Because only one case has been identified among the 3,200 employees at the building, health and Social Security officials agreed yesterday that the Security West Complex does not appear to be the source of the disease.
"If they had a problem there, we would have seen other cases come forward by now," said Dr. Joan Colfer, director of disease control at the Baltimore County Health Department. "At the moment, we think this is [an] isolated case and the gentleman just happens to work at Social Security."
Workers interviewed outside the hulking building echoed that thought. Charles Sanzone, a 46-year-old analyst who works on the same floor as the stricken employee, said, "My lay opinion is that enough time has passed that if the building was the culprit, others would be sick."
Ken Smith is a claims authorizer who represents Local 1923 of the American Federation of Government Employees on a joint union-management health and safety committee. He said, "The employees seem to be pretty much taking it in stride."
Because the manager said he was vacationing in New York about 10 days before developing symptoms of Legionnaires' disease, Maryland health officials contacted their counterparts there, Colfer said.
Kristine Smith, a spokeswoman for the New York Health Department, said officials are contacting hospitals and doctors in a rural upstate county. She said officials had received no reports of Legionnaires' disease in the county, which she declined to name.
Officials would not identify the man other than to say he is a middle-age manager in the Office of Program and Integrity Reviews, and has worked for the agency for 29 years. Tom Margenau, a Social Security spokesman, said the man has been released from an undisclosed hospital and is recovering.
Cafritz Corp., which owns and maintains the building and leases it to Social Security, obtained test samples last week from the building's water systems. Margenau said the results are expected later this week. The building was closed during the weekend for an extensive cleanup of its water and cooling systems.
The spokesman said officials found no recent serious illnesses among employees that might have been overlooked cases of Legionnaires' disease.
Legionnaires' disease is caused by the bacterium Legionella pneumophila. The germ was first isolated in 1947, but its importance as a cause of acute respiratory infection was not recognized until 1976, when more than 200 people became ill while attending an American Legion convention at a hotel in Philadelphia.
About 1,200 cases of Legionnaires' disease were reported nationwide last year, but health officials believe that many Legionnaires' cases go unreported and that the true number is more like 10,000 a year, said Bob Howard, a spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Legionnaires' disease is treatable with antibiotics, but up to 15 percent of the known cases have been fatal. Experts say it is not spread from person to person.
Pub Date: 8/06/96