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Schools that reopened after lockdown should take measures to prevent Legionella

Precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19 could ultimately result in more stagnant water and hence allow more bacteria to grow


As schools and other educational centres cautiously reopened for the fall semester, several discovered harmful bacteria within their water systems. Parents are obviously concerned about what this means for their kids. As water quality specialists carried out water hygiene risk assessment evaluations, they warned that the COVID-19 pandemic stay-at-home orders would probably allow bacteria as well as harmful metals to accumulate in water systems as the water sat unused in the pipes. Some school and building managers looked for those issues as they reopened and found them. This presents serious health risks.

Several schools found Legionella bacteria, which cause Legionnaires’ disease, in their water system, and specialists say more should expect to see it. COVID-19 is not the only illness that teachers, children and parents will have to worry about as most schools reopened last fall. Legionella is lurking in the water systems of schools and other large buildings, and some of the measures to keep students and teachers in schools safe from COVID-19 may even increase risks from fatal illnesses caused by the bacteria. Legionella pneumophila is the bacteria that can cause Legionnaires’ disease, a respiratory illness. It can form in bodies of stagnant water and then disperse through the air (just like the new coronavirus) and be inhaled when a tap is turned on. It can be fatal in ten per cent of the cases. Young kids and students are less at risk of Legionnaires’ disease, but older students, adults and individuals with compromised immune systems are more vulnerable.

For schools and educational centres, it means that the long checklist for maintaining a safe learning environment during the coronavirus pandemic should also include water systems. Fortunately, there are simple steps that can actually minimise the risks.


Learning about water safety

Most schools don’t check their water pipes regularly. During calendar breaks, water usually sits in the plumbing system for days, weeks or even months. This has been, of course, even longer during this COVID-19 pandemic.

When water use is low, the water can stagnate. That allows bacteria like Legionella to grow into the water, potentially making it unsafe to use or drink.

Some schools have hundreds of water use locations, like gym showers, water faucets and fountains, or sinks in kitchens, restrooms and classrooms. Many of these locations can go unused for long periods of time. Some other large buildings can have underlying problems too with water temperature that may allow growth even without stagnation.


Those at risk

Most students and kids are not in a high-risk group for Legionella, but faculty, members of the staff and kids with weakened immune systems may be. It is unknown how many kids might get a less severe disease than Legionnaires’ disease called Pontiac fever. Pontiac fever has flu-like symptoms.

To protect against the spread of COVID-19, many schools have been unoccupied since March. All the bathrooms, sports facilities and cafeterias have gone unused. While low occupancy in schools and educational centres is typical throughout the summer breaks, many of them are actually open for summer school as well as other activities. Specialists worry that water has been left to stagnate in plumbing systems during the lockdown, and that schools lack plans or guidance from the authorities for dealing with the adverse effects of prolonged shutdowns.

Precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19 (turning off drinking faucets or closing off every other sink, for instance) could ultimately result in more stagnant water and hence allow more bacteria to grow. Sports facilities and cafeterias that are closed can also lead to an increased risk of the bacteria.

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