Arizona couple fell sick after stay at Aria


A doctor said two Arizona college students appeared to have caught Pontiac fever after the couple stayed at Aria just after the period when patrons were warned they may have been exposed to the bacterium that causes the fever and its more serious cousin, Legionnaires' disease.

Now, the couple wonders if more hotel patrons should have been warned of potential exposure.

The two Northern Arizona University students have recovered, but still need more testing to confirm their illness was related to the bacterium.

At this point, health officials said no new cases of Legionnaires' disease have been reported among hotel patrons.

After scoring a room at Aria on Priceline.com for just $100, Joseph Dougherty and Erika Keller drove from Flagstaff and checked into the posh Strip hotel on July 5.

They had a great time gambling, eating in the hotel's restaurants and swimming in the pool. And they said the hot showers and hot baths they took relaxed them.

But they fell ill two days after they returned home.

"I was never so sick before; neither was Erika," the 21-year-old Dougherty said in a phone call from his Flagstaff apartment. "We thought we had the flu and toughed it out on our own."

They missed several days of work. The young couple went to the university's student health center only after Dougherty's dad came across an Internet report about the Legionnaires' outbreak at the Aria and the warning letters sent to hotel patrons.

They were checked by Dr. Marcy Krueger. The doctor's report said that on the evening of July 7 Dougherty "developed fever, chills, body aches, headache, vomiting and fatigue. His symptoms lasted approximately 48 hours. ... In light of the recent outbreak of Legionnaires' disease at the Aria Hotel, I feel his ... illness was most consistent with Pontiac fever."

The report noted that the couple had stayed at the hotel on July 5 and 6.

Krueger's evaluation of Dougherty's 22-year-old girlfriend, Erika Keller, also concluded that Pontiac fever caused virtually the same symptoms for her, with the addition of diarrhea.

Pontiac fever is caused by the same type of Legionella bacteria as Legionnaires' disease. The symptoms of Pontiac fever usually last two to five days and include fever, headaches and muscle aches; however, there is no pneumonia as there is with Legionnaires' disease. Symptoms go away on their own without treatment and without causing further problems. The fever and Legionnaires' disease may also be called "Legionellosis"

"If we were older and not in good health, I hate to think what could have happened," Dougherty said. "There should probably be thousands more people getting notification letters warning them to see doctors if they get certain symptoms."

On July 14, Southern Nevada Health District officials said former Aria guests who stayed at the hotel from June 21 to July 4 could have been exposed to the sometimes fatal Legionnaires' bacteria which has infected six former hotel guests. Though the Aria cases stretch back almost to the Dec. 16, 2009, grand opening of the 4,000-room hotel, officials said they only needed to notify guests who stayed during the two-week period.

Patrons who stayed during that time period were told to see doctors if they experience high fever, chills, cough, muscle aches and headaches.

Health district officials have said the notification period was determined by three factors: The disease has an incubation period of two to 14 days, inspections found that legionella bacteria levels were elevated during that time, and Aria began a remediation water cleaning program on July 5.

Fixtures believed to have been the source of contamination were taken out of service, and extra chlorine was fed into the hot water system of rooms.

Blocks of 500 to 1,000 rooms of the 4,000 room hotel were closed off during the cleansing effort, which took overnight to complete.

"As part of the monitoring during this remediation period, 4 percent of rooms were being tested," said Stephanie Bethel, a health district spokeswoman. "This number is considered a representative sample by both the health district and the CDC."

Still, investigators can't be sure that all of the suspect Legionella was gone on July 5, said Jennifer Sizemore, another health district spokeswoman.

She stressed that no public health assessment can be that exact. Given what public health officials know, she said, the June 21 to July 4 time frame is their best judgment.

Alan Feldman, a spokesman for the Aria, said that if someone has a confirmed case of Legionellosis from dates near the June 21 to July 4 time frame, the hotel will compensate them.

"We're not going to split hairs," he said.

Though Feldman said the hotel's hot line (1-877-326-2742) has received hundreds of calls, he said "few" have said they need to be tested.

"We are paying for testing," said Feldman, who declined to say how many people are being tested.

CDC officials informed the health district last year that two cases of Legionnaires' disease had been possibly linked to the Aria. But it wasn't until last month that local officials tested the water at the Strip resort and discovered the bacteria that causes Legionellosis. The tests were done only after health officials determined that six former patrons of the hotel had been diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease.

All have recovered.

It is possible that others came down with symptoms of the disease and were treated with antibiotics, but the cases were never diagnosed as Legionnaires' disease, CDC officials said. Doctors must do a specific test to confirm the diagnosis.

The Legionella bacterium is often found in air-conditioning cooling towers, whirlpool spas, showers, faucets or other water sources. Both Legionnaires' disease and Pontiac fever are caught through inhaling contaminated water vapor.

Dougherty and Keller say they inhaled water vapors when they took hot showers and hot baths.

Dougherty said he informed both the health district and hotel about the situation that he and Keller found themselves in. He said he talked with Linda Verchick, an epidemiology supervisor at the health district, and Janina Cole, with whom he spoke on the hotel's hot line.

The women wouldn't comment to the Review-Journal, but Dougherty said Verchick told him urine, blood and antibody tests can be used to confirm the disease.

He said Cole told him he would be compensated for the testing and for contracting the disease, should his tests come back positive.

According to Feldman, the outbreak of Legionnaires' disease at Aria has not resulted in an inordinate number of cancellations of reservations at the hotel. "We always have some cancellations, and I wouldn't say we have any more than usual."

The outbreak was the latest bad news for the CityCenter development, coming the same week a structural engineer said construction defects at the mothballed Harmon Tower could cause it to collapse in an earthquake.

As news has spread about the outbreak, Stuart Weinberg of Maryland wrote to say he wondered if it could have had something to do with the death of his sister.

Though she didn't stay at the Aria, he said she spent a lot of time there between June 21 and June 28, including around decorative fountains. Fountains in other places have been the source of outbreaks, according to Alison Patti of the CDC.

Weinberg said, "On July 1, 2011, three days after her return to Atlanta, she became seriously ill. Her symptoms were those of someone exposed to Legionnaires' disease. As a cancer survivor ... with a weakened immune system, she was a person most at risk of the disease."

On the same day Weinberg's sister became ill, she died of severe respiratory distress. "We were going to do an autopsy and then we didn't," Weinberg said. "I wish now we had."

Weinberg said he is still mystified by his sister's death.

"I just can't seem to accept the fact that she was perfectly fine when we said goodbye in Vegas, and three days later she was gone," he said. "Our entire family is still in a state of shock. Does this explain why our beloved sister was taken from us, or is this just an eerie coincidence. I guess we will never know."

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.

 

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