A state prison in Somerset County is trying to figure out the source of a Legionnaires' outbreak there that sickened four inmates and how to eradicate the potentially deadly bacteria.
"We are taking this situation very seriously," state Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said Monday announcing the outbreak. "While the public is not in any danger, we believe in being proactive. Our priority is to prevent further cases."
The State Correctional Institution Somerset discovered its first case on July 15 only after one of the inmates got so sick that he needed treatment outside the prison, which has an in-house physician, and was tested at Somerset Hospital.
"That's how we discovered it," said Al Joseph, the prison's spokesman. "One of them was outside for treatment and was tested for Legionella and it was positive."
The prison, which holds about 2,300 inmates and has 600 employees, began looking for cases after that. A second inmate was diagnosed July 21, and two more on July 24. All four are in recovery inside the prison.
After the third and fourth cases, the state prison decided to hire Special Pathogens Laboratory, a Legionella consultant company in Pittsburgh run by internationally known experts Victor Yu and Janet Stout.
Dr. Yu said he and his colleague are reviewing data from water tests to try to determine the most likely source of the disease, which is spread through water, often when people drink water contaminated with Legionella bacteria.
He praised the prison and hospital for their fast reaction once they detected the disease in the inmates.
"Right after they confirmed it, they started them with all the right antibiotics at the right time," he said.
There are four antibiotics that have been proven most effective at stopping Legionnaires' from progressing, Dr. Yu said, including azithromycin and levofloxacin, both of which were used with inmates at Somerset.
The case is the first ever for the Somerset prison and appears to be unusual for prisons generally, though Dr. Yu said he is not sure if that is "because it is just rare or because it has not been detected before."
But it is also rare for Somerset County.
Teresa Polcha, director of nursing in Somerset Hospital's infection control department, said her hospital saw only two cases in all of 2012, compared with four cases at the prison in the past two weeks.
After the laboratory was called in and did testing of the water system on Friday, preliminary test results Monday showed the presence of Legionella in the prison's cooling towers, but not its water system.
As a precaution, until more testing is completed, the prison Monday afternoon began providing bottled water for inmates and employees.
Sean D. Hamill: email@example.com or 412-263-2579. First Published July 30, 2013 12:45 AM