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Hundreds at Plant City mobile home park want answers on Legionnaires' outbreak

PLANT CITY — Roger Laquerre awoke early a week ago, coughing and shivering.

His wife, Rachel, put a sweat shirt over his pajamas and wrapped him in a bedspread.

Still, she recalled, "He said he was freezing."

Laquerre, 83, a resident of the Meadows at Countrywood, landed in the hospital for five days. His diagnosis caught everyone by surprise: Legionnaires' disease.

Laquerre is one of two people at the 55-and-older mobile home park sickened by an outbreak of the disease. Another man, Gene Swanson, 76, who moved into the community only weeks ago, died Saturday after coming down with the disease.

On Tuesday, a nine-person team of public health specialists combed the 799-unit park, checking fountains, ponds, pools and spas as possible sources of the disease. Yet the investigators admit they may never find how the three became infected.

Legionnaires' disease is a type of pneumonia caused by a naturally occurring bacteria that grows best in warm water. People can become infected by breathing contaminated mist or vapor, but it does not spread from person to person.

Officials are expected to return to the mobile home park today to take water samples, which will be sent to a state laboratory, said Warren McDougle, epidemiology program manager for the Hillsborough County Health Department. Results may not be available until next week.

• • •

Hundreds of the park's residents turned out Tuesday night to a standing-room-only meeting.

Speculation swirled as residents worried about the disease's toll and the risk of infection.

"They're worried about, 'Can I be at the clubhouse? Am I going to be okay in my unit? Is my air conditioner okay?' " said Jim Butterworth, president of the residents' association.

No health officials addressed the crowd. Butterworth conducted the meeting, passing along advice. Clean your shower heads. Snowbirds who have been away from their homes should clean water tanks. Stay clear of possible sources of the disease.

"Be concerned, but don't be afraid," Butterworth said.

Health officials have not identified connections between the three victims or possible places outside the neighborhood they may have been together.

They weren't relatives and didn't live together.

Roger Laquerre, who is now resting at home, did use a swimming pool but otherwise had stayed close to home because he is recovering from a knee cap broken in July, his wife said.

She said she was told by health officials that the other sick person did not use the pool. And she said he did not know Swanson.

A neighbor of Swanson's said the victim recently retired from a tool-and-die business and moved into the home six weeks ago.

Swanson's wife had been working in the yard one day last week when she went inside and found Swanson unconscious, said next-door neighbor Bob Bethel, 65. She called an ambulance, and Swanson died Saturday.

"They weren't even unpacked yet," Bethel said.

It wasn't clear Tuesday whether Swanson died as a result of the disease or from other medical issues, said Harrison Cowan, a forensic investigator for the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office.

Swanson had significant heart problems that may have contributed to his death, Cowan said.

The office, which was initially notified of the case, declined to investigate because the manner of death was outside of its jurisdiction. The office investigates unnatural or mysterious deaths.

The cause of death will be determined by doctors at South Florida Baptist Hospital, where he died.

• • •

Legionnaires' disease is caused by a type of bacteria called Legionella, which got its name in 1976 after many people who attended an American Legion convention in Philadelphia became infected.

Nearly 200 cases have been reported in Florida in each of the past two years. Pinellas and Hillsborough counties see about 10 to 12 cases a year, according to epidemiology reports.

Nationally, between 8,000 and 18,000 people are hospitalized each year by it, though health officials think the number of infections is actually higher.

The only time the public is notified of Legionnaires' disease in Florida is when two or more cases are found in the same general area, such as the Plant City mobile home park, said Steve Huard, the Hillsborough County Health Department spokesman.

The disease is often treated with antibiotics, but deaths occur in 5 to 30 percent of cases.

On May 31, Charles C. Stoyka, 50, died at St. Petersburg General Hospital after coming down with the disease, his father said.

Stoyka had been traveling around the state with his girlfriend and came down with flulike symptoms days after he returned, said his father, Dr. Charles Stoyka, a retired internist.

He said his son didn't want to go to the hospital, but finally did on May 23 when his symptoms worsened. Within 48 hours, tests revealed he had Legionnaires'.

"On the 31st my boy was dead," he said. "I came here from Michigan to live with him. We were going to play golf and travel."

Times staff writer Jodie Tillman contributed to this report.

Hundreds at Plant City mobile home park want answers on Legionnaires' outbreak 10/18/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 11:11pm]
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