Chesterfield School Board members pressed state health officials this week about their probe of a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak, questioning a public rollout of findings before the county’s Board of Supervisors that focused exclusively on schools and left out a half-dozen other facilities that tested positive for Legionella bacteria.
Cooling towers at five county schools were found in recent months to have bacteria linked to the condition, a severe form of pneumonia. Others that tested positive include Johnston-Willis Hospital on Midlothian Turnpike, the U.S. Defense Supply Center on Jefferson Davis Highway and several private businesses in the northeast part of the county.
School Board Chairman Rob Thompson suggested to Alexander Samuel, a state official who is director of the Chesterfield Health District, that his department provided an incomplete picture of their investigation when they briefed supervisors in August on school cooling tower conditions.
“Normally you do an investigation, and you get all of the information, and all of the data, and you have it right there in front of you,” Thompson said. “When you get up and talk about it, you talk about all of the data and everything you investigated, not a cherry-picked slice of the data.”
Samuel said the department’s formal presentations to the supervisors focused on schools because the supervisors requested his office focus on the conditions at the school buildings as the county owns those facilities.
“I do not believe we have lost the trust of the county when we were asked to provide a presentation about a narrow range of facilities,” Samuel said.
School Board member Dianne Smith said that during a joint committee meeting of county and school officials she had asked a state epidemiologist to see pictures of the cooling towers at Johnston-Willis Hospital and was told to submit a Freedom of Information Act request.
“I felt like we as the public in Chesterfield County should and need to know all the information [on the non-school sites], one of those was a health care facility,” Smith said.
The August presentation showed images of gray mineral buildup and moss growth on cooling towers at Midlothian Middle School and Greenfield Elementary, two of the schools that tested positive for the particular strain of the Legionella bacteria that can cause Legionnaires’ disease. Falling Creek Middle School, Lloyd C. Bird High School and Matoaca High School also tested positive for the presence of the bacteria.
Hopkins and Alberta Smith elementary schools were found to have a much less virulent strain of the Legionella bacteria, which county officials said is generally not linked to causing illness.
Chesterfield Administrator Joe Casey said prior to the state health department’s August presentation that county officials were concerned about school facilities in particular that tested positive for the bacteria because Chesterfield’s charter says the county owns school buildings.
Casey said that CDC officials have said the school cooling towers in Chesterfield were some of the poorest maintained towers they have seen in the U.S.
School officials this week said testing showed that all of their cooling towers — about 50 units among three-dozen schools — are free of Legionella bacteria after the school system’s work to clean all the towers. The school system has also said it is undertaking regular testing of the towers and focusing on preventative maintenance for its HVAC systems.
Samuel said one thing that health officials still do not know is whether any of the sites the state tested were the cause of a spike in Legionnaires’ disease this year in Chesterfield, where there have been 13 confirmed cases.
Lilian Peake, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health, told the School Board that it’s not unusual for an investigation to not pinpoint a source of illness.
After sometimes tense questioning by Thompson, School Board member Carrie Coyner defended state health officials, saying it is understandable that the county would focus on school buildings because the county owns them.
“I’m sorry for how you have been talked to this evening,” Coyner told state officials. “Because we wouldn’t be here tonight if our cooling towers had been cleaned, and that is not your fault.”