Two prisoners from Connecticut’s Osborn prison test positive for legionnaires disease

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Two prisoners at the Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers have tested positive for Legionnaires’ disease, a rare lung infection caused by bacteria, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut Department of Correction confirmed.

The illnesses were first confirmed in two prisoners from the medium-security unit while they were undergoing treatment at a nearby hospital, according to Karen Martucci, a DOC spokeswoman. Both individuals were treated and returned to the prison, she said.

Martucci confirmed the positive tests in an email on Monday. She did not say when prison officials first learned of the outbreak.

“The Department of Correction is working closely with the Department of Public Health (DPH), following CDC recommendations to protect the health and safety of the incarcerated population and staff at the Osborn facility,” Martucci said in an email.

Legionnaires’ disease is caused by a bacteria that can grow in large water systems such as heating and cooling units and is typically spread through water droplets in the air, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the disease can be treated with antibiotics, it is fatal in about 10 percent of cases.

Helenna Hauser, a medical assistant from Barkhamsted, said that she learned of the outbreak last week from her father, who had been moved from his housing unit as a precautionary measure. Hauser said that her father, who was transferred to Osborn earlier this year, had long complained about the water quality and stiff, non-circulating air in the unit that he blamed for worsening respiratory problems.

“I get that it’s prison, I get that it shouldn’t be a luxury but it also shouldn’t be affecting them the way that it has,” Hauser said.

As part of the prison's remediation efforts, Martucci said officials moved the population of prisoners from the affected area. Because the prisoners were moved, Martucci said there was no need to distribute bottled water.

Martucci’s initial statement did not identify a suspected source of the illnesses, and she did not respond to follow-up questions seeking more information.

Osborn held just over 1,000 individuals last month, according to population logs published online. The prison was among those in the state that were noted for their relatively low number of coronavirus infections early in the pandemic.

Ken Krayeske, an activist and attorney who has filed several lawsuits against the prison system's medical practices, said however that the infections were not a surprise at a prison like Osborn, which he described as having dirty, brown water and poorly-maintained sanitation systems.

Describing a recent visit to a hospital wing at Osborn, Krayeske said it was “not the sanitary environment that you feel when you walk in a Yale New Haven or Hartford Hospital.”

Outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease have also occurred at prisons in Florida, California and New Jersey in recent years, sickening more than a dozen prisoners. The disease is named for the first identified outbreak, which occurred at an American Legion conference in Philadelphia in 1976.