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    Courthouse astir over bacterium

    Officials say bailiffs' exposure to Legionnaires' Disease bacteria is no cause for alarm.

    By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2001


    LARGO -- Six bailiffs who work at Pinellas' criminal courthouse have tested positive for an antibody indicating exposure to the Legionnaires' Disease bacteria, the Sheriff's Office said on Monday.

    But Pinellas health officials say the finding is no cause for alarm. None are sick with the disease or even a milder cousin called Pontiac Fever.

    "This is a really common bacterium," said Dr. Steve Wiersma, deputy state epidemiologist. "It's found all over the environment. Lots of us have been exposed to it. And we never get sick."

    The tests may be more public relations problem than real health threat as health officials work to reassure the county's 133 bailiffs, and other courthouse workers, that they work in a safe environment.

    "We've talked to the Sheriff's Office and told them that there is no current case of Legionnaires' Disease connected to the courthouse," said Diana Jordan, a specialist in communicable disease surveillance with the Pinellas Health Department.

    County health officials say that up to 20 percent of the general population carry antibodies for Legionnaires', most without ever getting ill or even realizing they have been exposed to the bacteria.

    State health officials said they would become concerned only if the positive tests were coupled with symptoms of Legionnaires' Disease, which includes fever, coughs, muscle aches and pneumonia.

    Sheriff's Capt. Cliff Voege, who is in charge of the county's bailiffs, said just one of the six bailiffs was sick. And that bailiff, he said, wasn't sick with Legionnaires' Disease or Pontiac Fever.

    "I understand that what he had was just a normal virus that was knocking a lot of us down earlier this year," Voege said.

    After that ill bailiff tested positive earlier this year, Voege said, other bailiffs were told to undergo the same test if they were worried.

    In recent weeks, five others have tested positive.

    But the fact that each tested positive is no proof that they were exposed to Legionnaires' in the 49th Street courthouse, health officials said.

    The bacteria believed responsible for Legionnaires' Disease grows in water in air-conditioning ducts, storage tanks and rivers.

    Pinellas General Services Director Carl Barron said routine tests this year at the criminal courthouse have detected no trace of the Legionnaires' bacterium or evidence of other health threats, such as mold.

    The Florida Department of Health has received no reports of Legionnaires' Disease or Pontiac Fever in Pinellas this year.

    Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, whose offices are in the criminal complex, said he has become concerned in recent months about a high number of lung ailments among about a dozen workers in one part of his office.

    "But almost all of them have little kids," he said. "And when kids get sick, parents get sick."

    The county is replacing some siding on the building, which opened in the summer of 1996, because of leaks around windows.

    "My concern is that where there is water, there is mold," said Dillinger, who said he contracted a mild case of Legionnaires' years ago when courts were located in a different building.

    "I can see both sides of this," he said. "On one hand, I don't want people panicking. But I've been sick with it, so I know it can happen."

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