Legionella Update

Community Messages

September 23, 2021
Sent to Homewood Apartments Residents

Good afternoon,

I hope your semester is going well. I wanted to take a moment to share some important information regarding continued maintenance of our buildings.

Following nationwide recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on safely reopening buildings after pandemic shut-downs, JHU has been conducting enhanced monitoring of showers and other plumbing fixtures across its campuses for the presence of the Legionella bacteria. This monitoring has and will continue throughout the year to insure our buildings remain safe.

I am reaching out to you to let you know that your apartment is one of several where the university will be implementing preventative measures after detecting elevated levels of Legionella. JHU Facilities will need to access your apartment to install a new, hospital-grade showerhead. These new showerheads filter out bacteria and are commonly used in medical facilities for immune-compromised patients. Please note your water is safe to drink and use. The Legionella bacteria are transmitted through inhalation, not ingestion and not person-to-person contact. These safety measures are being done proactively out of an abundance of caution.

The replacement of the showerheads will begin on Friday, September 24 beginning at 10AM and the work will continue until all are replaced. During this time, your bathroom will be inaccessible for approximately 20 minutes so please plan accordingly.

If you have any questions, please contact the Housing Office at requests@jhu.edu.

We apologize for any inconvenience and thank you for your patience and cooperation.

Sincerely,

Sarah Mansfield
Director of Housing Operations


August 13, 2021
Sent to AMR II and III Residents

Dear AMRs II and III Student Residents at JHU:

All of us at Johns Hopkins are excited to have you join us for the fall semester. We have been hard at work to make sure you and your classmates have a safe and rewarding experience, and we want to let you know about some additional precautions we have recently taken in the AMR II and III residential buildings where you will be living this year.

Following nationwide recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on safely re-opening buildings after pandemic shut-downs, JHU has been conducting enhanced monitoring of showers and other plumbing fixtures across its campuses for the presence of the Legionella bacteria.

Earlier this summer, when residential buildings were not in use, our monitoring detected persistently elevated levels of the Legionella bacteria in a few of the showers in AMR II and AMR III, and we sought additional outside expertise for remediation.

In consultation with the CDC, city health officials, and Johns Hopkins’ own public health experts, the university performed a comprehensive flushing and treatment plan (including thermal treatments, in which extremely hot water is run through the pipes, and chemical treatments), and in an abundance of caution installed all new hospital-grade showerheads throughout the AMRs. These new showerheads filter out bacteria and are commonly used in medical facilities for immune-compromised patients.

Through these steps, we are confident we can safely welcome students and staff back to these residence halls as planned. There are no other buildings or areas of concern at this time, although we are continuing our enhanced monitoring of all showers across our campuses to make sure they remain safe. We also anticipate that a return to normal water utilization will prevent a recurrence of the issue.

Note that the AMR I building had an isolated elevated reading of Legionella bacteria earlier in the summer and was treated following standard protocols. Nonetheless, in an abundance of caution, we took the added step of replacing all showerheads in AMR I along with AMR II and AMR III.

We will keep you apprised of any further developments and have placed additional information and FAQ on the Student Affairs website. Highlights include:

  • Legionella bacteria are naturally occurring in the environment and in the lakes and reservoirs that supply water to municipal systems like Baltimore’s but can reach potentially concerning levels when water sits for long periods in the pipes of an unused building.
  • The Legionella bacteria are transmitted through inhalation, not ingestion and not person-to-person contact. Therefore, the causes for concern are limited to showers, not other water uses like washing hands, food preparation, and drinking.
  • Most people exposed to the Legionella bacteria are not at risk of contracting Legionnaire’s disease. According to the CDC, those at risk for contracting the pneumonia associated with Legionella are individuals over the age of 50, people with cancer or chronic lung diseases such as emphysema, and those with compromised immune systems.

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact us at firstyear@jhu.edu.

We look forward to welcoming you to campus next week and will remain vigilant, as your health and safety are our top priority.

Sincerely,

Kevin Shollenberger
Vice Provost for Student Health and Well-Being
Interim Vice Provost for Student Affairs

Jon Links
Professor, Vice Provost, and Chief Risk Officer

Bob McLean
Vice President for Facilities and Real Estate


Frequently Asked Questions

How did Johns Hopkins University detect Legionella bacteria on campus?

Following nationwide recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on safely re-opening buildings after pandemic shut-downs, JHU has been conducting enhanced monitoring of showers and other plumbing fixtures across its campuses for the presence of the Legionella bacteria.

Last updated: August 13, 2021 at 3 p.m.

Why did it develop in some places but not others?

In addition to its level of use, the age and design of a plumbing system can increase the propensity for Legionella to proliferate, either throughout a building or in individual fixtures. The AMR residence halls are among our most historic buildings, and as such, require additional maintenance and care.

Note that the AMR I building had an isolated elevated reading of Legionella bacteria earlier in the summer and was treated following standard protocols. Nonetheless, in an abundance of caution, we took the added step of replacing all shower heads in AMR I along with AMR II and AMR III.

Last updated: August 13, 2021 at 3 p.m.

What did the university do to address it?

In close consultation with the CDC, city health officials, and Johns Hopkins public health experts, the university pursued an aggressive remediation plan:

  • The buildings’ pipes have received repeated thermal shock treatments, in which extremely hot water is run through the pipes;
  • Standard chemical treatments were repeatedly applied;
  • The water in the pipes has been repeatedly flushed, and;
  • Hospital-grade showerheads that filter out bacteria, which are commonly used in medical facilities for the most vulnerable and immune-compromised patients, have been installed.

Last updated: August 13, 2021 at 3 p.m.

Is it safe to be in those buildings?

Yes. The buildings’ pipes have been repeatedly treated, tested, and flushed, and we have installed hospital-grade showerheads that filter out bacteria and are commonly used for immune-compromised patients. Through this combination of mitigation strategies, we are confident we can safely welcome students back to these dorms as planned.

Last updated: August 13, 2021 at 3 p.m.

Is the water in campus buildings safe to drink?

Yes. Because Legionnaires’ disease is a respiratory infection, the exclusive concern is Legionella bacteria that are inhaled, not ingested (e.g., by drinking water). We are also continuing the enhanced monitoring of our water systems and anticipate that normal levels of water use will prevent a recurrence of the issue.

Last updated: August 13, 2021 at 3 p.m.

How will residents know if the problem returns?

We are continuing testing throughout the semester and will notify residents of any issues and efforts to mitigate the situation if needed.

Last updated: August 13, 2021 at 3 p.m.

How will individuals in other buildings know if there is a problem with Legionella?

The university will provide regular updates to the community as it continues to test the water in AMR II and III, as well as enhanced monitoring of other facilities on its campuses throughout the academic year, to ensure a safe and healthy environment.

Last updated: August 13, 2021 at 3 p.m.

Fresh Food Café (FFC), a dining hall, is connected to the AMRs – Is eating there OK? Why?

Yes, eating at the FFC is safe, as it uses different water systems than the AMRs. Further, the higher temperatures that are used in dishwashing kill the bacteria. Legionella is transmitted through inhalation, not ingestion. Therefore, the causes for concern are limited to showers, not water uses like washing hands, food preparation, and drinking.

Last updated: August 13, 2021 at 3 p.m.

Are the showers in the O’Connor Center safe to use?

Yes. Through its enhanced testing efforts, the university has not detected persistently elevated levels of Legionella in any plumbing other than a handful of bathrooms in some of its most historic residence halls, AMRs II and III, and we are confident that those buildings are safe for use due to the aggressive mitigation measures that have been put in place.

Last updated: August 13, 2021 at 3 p.m.

About Legionella bacteria

Has anyone become ill at JHU because of exposure to Legionella bacteria?

  • No. No cases of Legionnaires’ disease have been reported in Johns Hopkins affiliates. Symptoms usually begin 2 to 10 days after being exposed to the bacteria, so any period of concern has passed. Of the handful of staff members working in these facilities, none reported any symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease or Pontiac fever, and all were offered testing.
  • Furthermore, individuals who test positive for Legionella (legionellosis) are required to be reported to the Maryland Department of Health. Public health workers at both local and state levels follow individual cases to ensure proper treatment, identify potential sources of infection, provide education to reduce the risk of transmission, identify susceptible contacts, and take other measures aimed at reducing the spread of disease. We have not received any reports from the state or city health departments.

Last updated: August 13, 2021 at 3 p.m.

What is Legionella bacteria?

  • Legionella is a naturally occurring bacterium in water that is common in the lakes and reservoirs that supply water to municipal systems like Baltimore’s.
  • It can proliferate to levels of potential concern when water sits in the pipes of an unused building for a long period of time, as occurred in some JHU buildings as a result of the pandemic.
  • At higher levels of concentration, the Legionella bacterium can cause respiratory infections known as Legionnaires’ disease and Pontiac fever in people over 50 years of age and/or at high risk due to unrelated health conditions.
  • Legionella is transmitted through inhalation, not ingestion. Therefore, the causes for concern are limited to showers, not water uses like washing hands, food preparation, and drinking. But no illnesses have been reported in any Johns Hopkins affiliates.

Last updated: August 13, 2021 at 3 p.m.

How common is Legionella bacteria in plumbing?

  • Low levels are normal in natural and man-made water sources in Baltimore, but ordinary daily use of water in a building usually prevents its buildup in the building’s pipes.
  • Legionella growth in buildings affected by COVID-related shutdowns is an expected phenomenon. Last year, the CDC issued guidelines for testing and treating plumbing systems that have seen little use during the pandemic, and we are following those guidelines.
  • During the pandemic, a number of schools, hotels, and office buildings across the country have shown elevated Legionella readings in their plumbing because of disuse.

Last updated: August 13, 2021 at 3 p.m.

What are the standards for acceptable levels of the Legionella bacteria?

While there are no uniform national standards for evaluating Legionella bacteria levels, Johns Hopkins has been consulting with the CDC, city health officials, and Johns Hopkins experts about our testing and results, including what levels of Legionella bacteria require treatment. Out of an abundance of caution, we have intervened and taken remediation steps at even lower levels than advised by public health officials.

Last updated: August 13, 2021 at 3 p.m.

How are Legionella bacteria transmitted?

Legionella bacteria are transmitted through inhalation, not ingestion. Use of showers and hot tubs are of greatest concern because people can inhale contaminated droplets that build up from the steam. Water uses such as drinking, food preparation, and washing hands are safe.

Last updated: August 13, 2021 at 3 p.m.

Who is at risk for Legionnaires’ disease?

Most people exposed to Legionella do not get sick. According to the CDC, those at highest risk for contracting the illness are individuals over the age of 50, people with chronic lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or emphysema, and those with compromised immune systems.

Last updated: August 13, 2021 at 3 p.m.

What are the symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease? Can it be treated?

Legionnaires’ disease is a respiratory infection that presents with symptoms similar to those of the flu or COVID—fever, coughing, shortness of breath, muscle aches, and sometimes nausea and diarrhea. Pontiac fever is a milder infection than Legionnaires’ disease with primarily fever and muscle aches that begin between a few hours to three days after being exposed and usually last less than a week. Both are treated with antibiotics. Legionnaires’ disease and Pontiac fever are not typically spread person to person, and neither illness has been reported in any Johns Hopkins affiliate.

Last updated: August 13, 2021 at 3 p.m.

Were the students who lived in AMR II and AMR III during the spring semester put at risk for Legionnaires’ disease?

No. Because of the normal water use in those buildings, the Legionella bacteria testing did not indicate persistently elevated levels until after the building was vacated for the summer.

Last updated: August 13, 2021 at 3 p.m.