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Local and Federal Health Agencies Disagree if the Epic Hotel and Residences
 Is in the Clear in the Death of a Guest from Legionnaires' Disease

By Fred Tasker and Jennifer Lebovich, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

December 18, 2009 --Downtown Miami's luxurious Epic Hotel & Residences remained closed Thursday while local and federal health officials disagreed over whether the hotel is cleared in the death of a guest from Legionnaires' disease.

On Wednesday, Miami-Dade Health Department officials, based on their understanding of information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had said the Epic was off the hook because the person who visited the hotel and later died had the same strain of the disease as another Legionnaire victim who had not stayed at the hotel.

On Thursday, CDC epidemiologist Dr. Laurie Hicks corrected that.

"It makes the hotel an extremely unlikely source, but does not rule it out entirely," she said. It won't be until testing of water samples from the hotel are complete in about 10 days that it can be totally cleared, she said.

"While it's unlikely we'll find the same strain at the hotel, we can't be certain," she said.

While the health department will not identify the person who died, the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner's Office said the only death attributed to Legionnaires' disease in the past few months is an English tourist named Tore Myhra, 57. He died of Legionella pneumophila Pneumonia on Nov. 1 at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.

The hotel has not been ruled out as the source of the Legionella bacteria in two other guests who stayed there, later became ill, but recovered.

CENTER OF INQUIRY

The Epic Hotel is the center of a probe into three cases of Legionnaires' disease -- including one death -- among tourists who had stayed at the hotel, 270 Biscayne Boulevard Way. An investigation by the CDC and local health officials of the three tourists' recent travels determined that their only common link was that they had stayed at the Epic, according to Dr. Vincent Conte, the health department's chief epidemiologist.

People get Legionnaires' disease when they breathe in a mist or vapor that has been contaminated with the bacteria, according to the CDC. The bacteria are not spread from one person to another person.

The health department has said a filtration system at the hotel may have stripped the chlorine out of the water from the county, making it susceptible to waterborne diseases such as legionella.

Epic spokesman Bruce Rubin said its officials are working closely with the health department. "We haven't been informed of any change in their position," he said.

Local health officials continue to say they have not found the Legionella bacteria in the Epic Hotel's water supply. Water samples have been taken, but results won't be available for more than a week, according to Lillian Rivera, department administrator.

CHLORINE ISSUE

The health department also determined that the hotel's new water filtration system was removing too much chlorine from the hotel's water, making it susceptible to contamination.

The department is working with the hotel's engineers to change the water filtration system, to "superchlorinate" it and to make sure chlorine levels are up to standards before the hotel reopens. That should happen within the 10 days needed to get back results of testing the water for the Legionella bacteria, Rivera said.

Its 300 guests have been relocated, costing the hotel $200,000 a day in lost revenue, Rubin said, and the Epic is being maintained by a skeleton staff.

THE SYMPTOMS

It is not known whether Myhra, a tourist from England, had stayed at the Epic.

He had been on a seven-day Caribbean cruise on the Liberty of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean Cruise Line ship, when he got sick, according to a report from the medical examiner's office.

For three days, he had symptoms including "nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, respiratory difficulty and dry cough" which got worse, the medical examiner's report said.

According to the CDC, symptoms of Legionnaires' disease begin between and two and 14 days of exposure to the bacteria.

When the ship docked at the Port of Miami on Oct. 31, a Saturday, he was taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital. He died the next day.

Myhra, a father of three, was identified by his wife, Susan.

A cruise line spokeswoman, Cynthia Martinez, said the ship reacted quickly to the report of the Legionnaires' case.

CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said his agency has investigated five or six cases of Legionnaires' disease aboard cruise ships going in and out of South Florida in the past three months. He would not identify the ships.

"All appropriate steps have been taken," he said.

He went on: "While it's rare, it's not unheard of. The Legionnaire bacteria is ubiquitous.

Each year in the U.S. there are thousands of cases reported."

The bacteria doesn't make most people sick, Skinner said.

"It's usually older people, smokers or people with chronic lung diseases or weakened immune systems."

Cruise ships are very aggressive in responding to such outbreaks, he said. He called cruising "a very safe endeavor."

270 Biscayne Blvd. Way, FL

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Copyright (c) 2009, The Miami Herald

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