PEKIN – Charged with the care of residents in 215 tiny apartments at the UAW Senior Citizens Center in Pekin, building manager Donald Bly would like to know more about the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Tazewell County.


Two residents at the center have gotten sick from the bacteria – one, a man in his 70s, died Aug. 16 and the other just got out of the hospital, Bly said during a phone interview Wednesday morning. But there are more cases out there in the county. On Sept. 10, the Tazewell County Health Department issued an alert for Legionnaires’ disease because there had been four cases since July, an increase of 66% compared to the same time last year.


Bly, who has worked at the UAW Senior Citizens Center for 32 years, wonders why the bacteria has suddenly shown up in the building.


"For this to be happening, it just tears me apart," he said. "We never had this problem in the past, and now we are having it. Is it in our water in Pekin? They haven’t told us where those other cases are. That information should be made public so people are aware of it."


There have been a total of seven cases of Legionnaires’ disease in Tazewell County this year, including the two at the UAW Senior Citizens Center, said Melaney Arnold, spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Public Health. After the first resident tested positive, IDPH staff came on-site to collect water specimens which later tested positive for Legionella bacteria. The IDPH will continue to work with the facility to provide guidance on mitigation measures, said Arnold.


When asked for more details about the other cases of Legionnaires’ disease in Tazewell County, Arnold did not respond.


Legionnaires’ disease is a serious type of pneumonia caused when people breath in mist or aspirate water containing legionella bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It’s not spread human to human, and healthy people usually don’t get sick from legionella. Those at increased risk are people over 50, smokers, people with lung disease, a weakened immune system or cancer, and people with other illnesses like diabetes, kidney failure or liver failure.


Legionella is found naturally in freshwater environments, such as lakes and streams. It can become a health concern when it grows and spreads in building water systems. People can get it by inhaling mist in a shower or from hot water rushing into a sink.


Residents at the UAW Senior Citizens Center have been under water usage restrictions that include no showers, said Bly.


"They can use their bathroom faucet and kitchen faucet, but the stream should be no larger than a pencil, because the way this travels is through water droplets or mist," he said. "And we are installing shower heads with filters that will stop the bacteria from coming out."


The whole endeavor is going to be expensive for the center.


"The shower head filters, there’s 215 apartments here, so that was $27,000 for shower heads. And then we’re also changing out the aerators for every apartment, and the city required us to put a backflow preventer in, which stops our water from backing up and going into the city water. So it’s gonna be north of six figures to get this taken care of," said Bly.


Ultimately, the center will be installing a filtration system for the entire building.


"We’re hoping to do it within the next 60 days," said Bly. "What this system will do is, the water that comes into the building will go through the water softener then through a filtration system where it will be heated to 160, then go through a valve to cool the water to 140 degrees. I think 140 degrees kills the bacteria."


Bly said the complex has an emergency fund that will take care of the cost of eradicating legionella in the building.


"We’re gonna be OK, but then you think about the other buildings out there that’s not OK, it’s not good," he said. "How many other buildings might be affected and not know it," Bly wondered.


"This problem is starting to spread across the nation because, during the COVID virus, office buildings pretty much shut down because employees worked from home. … now employees are going back to work, after toilets not being flushed and sinks not being run, and that water sitting in tanks and pipes has gotten stale. As a matter of fact, the CDC building in Atlanta has got it – the Health Department told me that. So I guess it’s a spin off from the COVID virus."


As the shutdowns began to ease, health officials urged building managers to flush out the water systems in buildings that had been vacant for weeks. But the UAW Senior Citizens Center has been up and running the whole time, Bly said.


"We’ve never had anything like this because our water is always moving, it’s always recycling through the building, it’s not standing still. That’s one thing we’ve got to figure out is why did that happen here," said Bly. "I know that I’ve seen press reports that Tazewell County is on alert for Legionnaires, so that sounds a little coincidental that at the same time we’re having this problem, there’s other cases out there."


Leslie Renken can be reached at 270-8503 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.