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City 'baffled' by Rotary Place issues, vows to find root (Update)

'We must do whatever it takes to keep our community safe,' says mayor after deciding to remove ice at arena due to strain of Legionella in cooling tower — again

The legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Orillia has officially been declared over, but the impact of the deadly cluster is far from over.

The City of Orillia is once again being forced to remove the ice from the twin-pad arena at Rotary Place after a strain of Legionella was found in a cooling tower at the city-owned facility at 100 University Ave.

“We were able to obtain a culture sample from one of the 35 cases,” said Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, at an afternoon news conference at the Orillia City Centre.

“With that, we were able to look back at other samples that we had from towers, and we found a match back to the Rotary Place tower.”

Mayor Steve Clarke says he’s relieved the outbreak has been declared over.

However, emoving the ice surfaces at Rotary Place is “unfortunate” for hockey players and figure skaters who have already been without ice since Oct. 7 due to issues with a heat exchanger.

“This is even more difficult now as we are beginning to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and are craving the activities that are certainly important for our physical health. More and more through the pandemic, those types of activities are subsequently important for our mental health,” Clarke said.

One person died as a result of the current outbreak and dozens were hospitalized. The cooling tower at Rotary Place was also the source of a Legionella outbreak in 2019.

Clarke says the municipality has done everything “operationally possible” to prevent the chances of Legionella growth, including a monthly maintenance and testing regimen at city-owned cooling towers — a practice that resulted from the 2019 outbreak.

“We need to get to the root of what is causing this,” he said. “The facts are we don’t know. There is very little ready information about what causes Legionella, how to prevent it, and a significant lack of information from our senior levels of government.”

Clarke says the municipality, in conjunction with the health unit, has taken measures he “firmly believes exceed the benchmarking done” by other institutions or municipalities to prevent Legionella.

Testing for Legionella bacteria has been completed every few days since the Rotary Place cooling tower resumed operations following the repair of the heat exchanger at the end of October.

“The tests completed on Nov. 1 and 4 provided no detection of Legionella bacteria; however, testing pursuant to the city’s rigorous testing protocols detected low levels of Legionella bacteria within the cooling tower on Nov. 7,” the health unit confirmed in a news release.

While the levels were not high enough to be an “active risk to the community at this time,” the city determined the safest option was to shut down the cooling tower until a root cause can be determined.

“There is something going on with that tower,” Clarke said. “It baffles us with the measures we’ve put in place. We don’t understand why this is occurring, and we have asked for industry experts to look into this.”

The removal of the ice has forced some last-minute changes to Orillia's annual Jim Wilson Chevrolet Buick GMC Winter Classic hockey tournament that is set to start later this week.

The Orillia Minor Hockey Association has a backup plan and they are working on it right now, officials say, noting rinks in Rama, Coldwater, and the Brian Orser Arena will be used. 

“After the heat exchanger failure, city staff were all hands on deck to get the ice put back into Rotary Place for this weekend’s coming hockey tournament,” Clarke said. “We’ve had this unfortunate news and it’s absolutely heartbreaking to have to flush those efforts literally down the drain.”

He says there is no current timeline for when the ice will be able to be put back into Rotary Place.

“Please believe me when I say I wish I had different news,” he said. “We must do whatever it takes to keep our community safe, and we appreciate the patience and understanding of our citizens.”

Gardner commended the city for taking a precautionary approach to investigating the issue.

“We don’t have risk because control measures have been in place,” he said. “The risk that we want to avoid is any recurrence, more Legionella growing and transmitting to the community.”

As a result of the legionnaires’ outbreak, Gardner said the health unit investigated 27 known cooling towers at 17 sites in Orillia; 10 of these sites were tested.

It was determined a strain of Legionella found in the Rotary Place cooling tower was a genetic match with one sputum sample of a case of legionnaires’ disease among the 35 cases.

Testing for the source of the other 34 cases could not be done. In addition, testing could not be done for seven of the sites as they had been shut down for the season before testing could be completed.

The cooling towers in operation in Orillia that have been identified by the health unit (both public and private) are being closely monitored.

“We are confident that with the testing, monitoring and completion of any required cleaning and disinfection of the cooling towers that continue to operate in Orillia at this time, there is no further risk of transmission associated with this outbreak,” Gardner said.

Legionella bacteria are commonly found in natural freshwater environments. However, their presence can become a health concern in water systems, such as cooling towers, says the health unit.

People can contract legionnaires’ disease when they inhale aerosolized water droplets containing the bacteria. Fortunately, most people exposed to the bacteria do not become ill, notes a news release from the health unit.

However, people older than 50, heavy drinkers, those whose immune systems are impaired due to other medical conditions, smokers, and people who have a chronic lung disease, such as emphysema, are at greater risk of developing legionnaires’ disease.

Legionnaires’ disease cannot be contracted by drinking water and it cannot be passed from person to person.

More information on legionnaires’ disease can be found on the health unit’s website or by calling Health Connection at 705-721-7520 or 1-877-721-7520, weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.


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Tyler Evans

About the Author: Tyler Evans

Tyler Evans got his start in the news business when he was just 15-years-old and now serves as a video producer and reporter with OrilliaMatters
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