Glass half empty: DPH confirms positive Legionella tests at Autry State Prison for more than a year

DPH confirms Legionnaires Disease stemmed from water system at Autry State Prison
Video from WALB
Published: Oct. 21, 2022 at 3:35 PM EDT

PELHAM, Ga. (WALB) - At WALB, we often get calls and emails from viewers across south Georgia about jail and prison conditions. But these claims are often difficult to prove.

However, new information from the Georgia Department of Corrections and Georgia Department of Public Health (GDPH) confirms a dangerous and hard-to-control bacteria is within the water system at Autry State Prison in Mitchell County.

Back in June of 2021, an inmate at the medium-security prison tested positive for Legionnaires Disease. It’s a deadly and hard-to-trace illness.

WALB’s investigation found that the case did stem from bacteria within the water system at the prison.

Dr. Richard Miller has more than 40 years of experience working with Legionella. He says it’s usually the immunocompromised that become severely ill from exposure to Legionella — but adds that not everyone in a prison is in perfect condition.

“Legionnaires disease is a pretty serious disease,” Dr. Miller said. “It causes pneumonia, you breathe it into your lungs, and it does kill a fairly significant number of people. But it is readily treatable with antibiotics if you give them early enough.”

You don’t even have to drink the water to get sick. The hard-to-see mist, that comes from faucets or AC units — is often how the bacteria is spread.

Nancy Nydam, director of communications with the Georgia Department of Public Health, first confirmed the presence of Legionella in the prison’s water supply.

“If the first round of testing indicates the presence of Legionella, the Georgia Department of Public Health advises multiple rounds of negative water test results be returned over several months consecutively in order to close an investigation,” Nydam said. “Since that has not yet occurred, the investigation remains open.”

That begs the question, how do inmates know if they’re drinking contaminated water? The answer is: they don’t.

”It could be anywhere in the prison,” Miller said. “Sometimes in hospitals, you might find more of it on one floor than another. So a prison might have one wing that might be more than another. But it could be anywhere.”

Joan Heath with the Georgia Department of Corrections says there is no outbreak of legionella at the facility and offenders have been kept informed.

Heath also claims the department of corrections is in the process of replacing its water distribution system. She tells WALB there is no estimated completion date, adding that the two buildings where testing is taking place are currently vacant.

The water has been tested roughly every two weeks since June of last year. If they test positive for any Legionella bacteria, the process restarts. It has cost the state thousands of dollars.

Heath tells WALB that chlorine levels have increased, and that plumbing lines are regularly flushed.

Still, it’s been more than a year and the Georgia Department of Health is still finding Legionella in the water.

The CDC website says the key to preventing Legionnaires’ disease is to reduce the risk of Legionella growth and spread. But with old pipes, and a large, complex plumbing system, it seems nearly impossible.

Both the Georgia Department of Corrections and Georgia Public Health officials declined an in-person interview.


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