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Update: Buildings identified in Grand Rapids Legionnaire's outbreak

The new Itasca County Justice Center is set to open in January 2024.
Maria Hileman
The Itasca County Justice Center is one of two buildings with positive tests for legionella bacteria in the water.

Grand Rapids Public Utilities said the YMCA and Itasca County Jail returned positive samples from Department of Health testing in December, and the jail tested positive again in February.

GRAND RAPIDS — A recent update from Grand Rapids Public Utilities identified two buildings that tested positive for legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s disease, during the city’s recent outbreak.

The Itasca County Family YMCA and the Itasca County Jail both returned positive samples when the Minnesota Department of Health conducted investigative testing in December 2023 to determine the cause.

The YMCA has since tested negative, according to preliminary results from University of Minnesota testing completed in February. But two Itasca County Jail samples returned positive results, along with one positive sample from the city’s water distribution system. The U of M took samples at five locations throughout Grand Rapids and LaPrairie, which is supplied water by GRPU.

Requests for comment from Itasca County officials about the positive test results were not returned this week. YMCA Executive Director Joni Namyst was out of the office and unavailable for comment.

There have been 14 known cases of Legionnaire's disease in the city in the past year, including 11 hospitalizations. Most people don’t notice a legionella infection, but the illness can be severe and even deadly, especially for the immunocompromised. The bacterial pneumonia is contracted by inhaling vapor with the bacteria, but not by drinking water. It cannot be spread from person to person.

Legionella bacteria is commonly found in low concentrations in public water systems and thrives in warm, stagnant water and untreated environments. Officials have stressed the importance of cleaning and maintaining shower heads, faucets and machines that aerosolize water like humidifiers, hot tubs and saunas. You should flush fixtures or water systems that haven’t been used in over a week.

GRPU said it is implementing a two-pronged approach to addressing the outbreak, which sickened at least 14 people in the past year. First, the utility is increasing distribution system testing and collecting samples from buildings in the community. Weekly testing is expected to begin within a month.

GRPU is also investigating disinfection, with long-term chlorine or chloramine treatment the most likely outcome. Grand Rapids and Brainerd are the two remaining large cities in Minnesota without chlorinated water.

Megan Buffington joined the KAXE newsroom in 2024 after graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Originally from Pequot Lakes, she is passionate about educating and empowering communities through local reporting.