Harrah's Cherokee Casino

The Jackson County Department of Health and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Public Health and Human Services are investigating three cases of Legionnaires disease among visitors to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort during May to November.

The North Carolina Division of Public Health is assisting in the investigation as needed, Jackson County Deputy Health Director Melissa McKnight said.

“I think the way we’re working now, we’re able to investigate as appropriate,” she said.

Harrah’s management is treating its water system and informing past and current guests.

“They have developed a placard to be placed at various locations throughout the casino and hotel to let guests know, and they will be reaching out to current and past guests as appropriate,” she said. “They’re developing those notifications right now.”

Harrah’s has hired an experienced consultant to conduct remediation and perform followup sampling to ensure the remediation efforts are effective.

“Anything greater than two cases is considered an outbreak,” McKnight said.

“That’s why we’re investigating it. All three cases had a history of visiting Harrah’s,” she said.

Once Jackson County health officials received notification of the first confirmed case of Legionnaires disease, they notified Harrah’s, according to an official timeline.

When officials learned of the second case, they notified the state Division of Public Health.

An environmental assessment of the property was performed, and multiple environmental samples were collected for Legionella testing. The presence of Legionella bacteria was identified at low levels, according to local officials.

Still, McKnight cautioned, that does not necessarily mean the patients were exposed at Harrah’s.

“Legionnaires bacteria is naturally occurring in the environment, so it is kind of difficult to determine exactly where it comes from, but we do take every case very seriously,” she said. “We want to make sure that when people are traveling, they are staying at the safest place possible.”

Anyone who visited Harrah’s within the timeframe who experiences symptoms should go to their doctor to get tested, McKnight said.

“Legionnaires is a form of pneumonia, so the signs and symptoms would be very similar to that,” she said. “That would be a high fever, chills, cough, fatigue or weakness.”

Anyone with additional questions can call the Health Department at 587-8201 Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or visit health.jacksonnc.org.

The Illinois Department of Public Health in November announced the discovery of three cases of Legionnaires disease at McHenry Villa, a retirement home in Springfield, Illinois.

Three cases were also discovered in a nursing home in Chicago in October, according to multiple media reports. Two more were reported in Timonium, Maryland, in early November.

Legionnaires disease facts:

• Legionnaires disease is a type of pneumonia caused by inhaling aerosol droplets of water contaminated with Legionella bacteria. Sources of the contaminated water droplets can include showers, hot tubs, faucets, cooling towers, misters and decorative fountains. Most people exposed to Legionella bacteria will not get sick.

• Legionnaires disease is treatable with antibiotics, but it can cause severe illness and sometimes results in death. The disease is rarely spread from person to person.

• Symptoms usually begin within two to 14 days after exposure to the bacteria.

• Scientists named the bacterium after an outbreak in Philadelphia in 1976.

During that outbreak, many people who went to an American Legion convention got sick with pneumonia (lung infection).

• Health departments reported about 6,100 cases of Legionnaires disease in the United States in 2016.

However, because Legionnaires disease is likely underdiagnosed, this number may underestimate the true incidence.

• About one in 10 people who gets sick from Legionnaires disease will die.

Those at increased risk of getting sick include:

• People 50 years of age and older.

• Current or former smokers.

• People with chronic lung disease.

• People with weakened immune systems.

• People who take drugs that can weaken their immune systems (after a transplant operation or chemotherapy).

• People with underlying illnesses such as diabetes, kidney failure or liver failure.