The Valencia campus of College of the Canyons is getting an up-close and personal examination to ensure it remains a healthy place to learn.
What college officials are dealing with is the fact that one, and possibly two staff members, have confirmed cases of Legionnaires' disease. The third floor of the Seco Hall has been emptied and the building's innards are being tested for bacteria and hidden pools of standing water.
The internet is already buzzing with rumors and fear, because Legionnaires' sounds scary. Students wonder if they have to go to class in the affected building and what the college is doing to prevent a widespread epidemic.
The answer is educating - a natural for a place of higher learning, but also a proactive way to fend off unwarranted panic.
Sue Bozman, the college's spokeswoman, confirmed that one female employee who worked in an office on the third floor of Seco Hall was sick and had tested positive for Legionnaires', according to her doctor.
"She developed pneumonia, which was diagnosed as Legionnaires', so we called a company that does testing of facilities specifically this kind of bacterium," Bozman explained.
According to the Mayo Clinic, Legionanaires' disease was first identified in 1976 as the result of an outbreak of pneumonia at an American Legion convention. It is a severe form of pneumonia caused by a bacterium known as legionella. Legionnaires' disease is not contracted from person-to-person contact. Instead, most people get Legionnaires' disease from inhaling the bacteria. Older adults, smokers and people with weakened immune systems are particularly susceptible to Legionnaires' disease.
"It's not contagious from one person to the next," she continued. "You get it from water, if the water has been contaminated by specific bacteria which can grow at certain temperatures. If you get an intense concentration and the water is aerated, people breathe it and get sick."
The company checked the entire building, including ventilation systems, water foundations and bathrooms - pretty much anywhere water might exist - and the report received by the college was negative.
"We thought she might have gotten sick somewhere else," Bozman said. "But a few days later, we got a report from another employee that they had seen their doctor and had a preliminary possibility that they had been exposed to Legionnaires.' It was not confirmed and there would need to be more testing."
With the second possible case coming from an employee who also worked on the third floor of Seco Hall, Bozman said the college shifted into proactive mode.
"We went to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and told them what we had. They gave us guidelines as to what to do if we had a second confirmation, but we decided we didn't want to wait until we got that confirmation and took action."
The school immediately sent out three handouts; a general informational piece about Legionnaires', a sheet specific to COC and a sheet specific to the students, which included the query "If I'm afraid to go to class because I might be exposed to Legionella bacteria, will it affect my grade."
The short answer? Go to class. Unless they confirm that the bacteria is there, you've got to show up to get counted.
They also moved all the people who work on the third floor of Seco Hall - where the staff member with the confirmed case and the staffer with a suspected case have offices - to another building and brought in another testing company to take a much harder look, using cameras to run through pipes, ventilation systems and generally searching for standing water that might be a breeding ground for the bacterium.
Bozman said that along with the testing, the college is also going to examine its attendance records and isolate those students and staff members who have been out for three or more days during the last three months.
"We'll get in touch with them and ask them if they had specific symptoms or if they develop those symptoms, to check with their doctors and be tested for this bacteria," she said. "Right now, we have one case, but that doesn't mean it's an outbreak. If we have more than one case, it's more than likely that the bacteria is here, so we're taking a two-pronged approach to the problem. One is an awareness campaign to our staff and students so they report to us and the second is testing the building."
"We have a hard time sitting around waiting, that's why we're moving forward with advisories to make students and staff more aware."