County health officials: Masks do not spread Legionella

| August 11, 2020 8:26 AM

Lincoln County Health Department officials pushed back last week on rumors that Legionella had spread throughout the community through the use of face masks.

Legionella bacteria can cause what is commonly known as Legionnaires’ disease, a serious type of pneumonia. While found naturally in the outdoors, the bacteria poses a risk to people if it spreads into man-made water systems.

Legionella typically spreads through the air in droplets after becoming entrenched in a man-made water system, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disease is typically associated with large or complex water systems aboard cruise ships or in hospitals and hotels.

One way it cannot be spread? Through the wearing of face coverings.

Public Health Manager Jennifer McCully said seeing local Facebook posts claiming that one or more individuals in Lincoln County had contracted Legionnaires’ disease by wearing a mask prompted a response from the department. Officials posted a rebuttal with more information about Legionella on its Facebook page Aug. 6.

“That’s just not possible,” she said. “We put a kibosh to that as soon as we could and, at least, get some factual information out.”

The nonprofit Legionella, founded to promote education and research regarding the disease, also flatly refutes transmission via mask. Legionella does not generally spread from person-to-person and the bacteria cannot survive on surfaces.

“Your mask would not be a source of transmission for the Legionella bacteria,” according to the group’s frequently asked questions page.

Still, rumors about catching Legionnaires’ disease through face coverings have spread on social media as the debate over masks heats up across the country. News outlets including the Associated Press and Reuters have published articles refuting the link.

In its fact-check, the Associated Press reported that at least one post suggested that the Legionnaires’ disease caused by face coverings was being misdiagnosed as COVID-19.

“There is no way that the environment that would be produced from a damp mask is going to be suitable for Legionella to grow in any kind of quality to cause Legionnaires’ disease,” Dr. Jonathan Parsons, a pulmonologist with The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told the news agency.

And Legionnaires’ disease is an illness that county authorities track. There has not been a case of the disease locally for years, officials said.

McCully said it’s the first time she can recall the health department directly refuting misinformation circulating on social media.

“We’re always trying to put out continual data and mask information, but that’s the first time we’ve addressed a rumor,” she said.