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Legionnaires’ disease traced to restaurant fountain

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Casa Del Rey manager
Jon Sharp, general manager of Casa Del Rey Mexican restaurant, stands in front of the restaurant Saturday to answer reporters’ questions a short time after the South Dakota Department of Health announced that the restaurant’s lobby fountain tested positive for the strain of bacterium that has afflicted 15 people with Legionnaires’ disease. (Dan Daly/Journal staff)

RAPID CITY -- Since July, state health officials and hired Legionnaires' disease experts have been hunting high and low in Rapid City for the source of the particular Legionella bacterium strain that has sickened 15 people in Rapid City.

The list includes one woman who died and two new cases reported as recently as Friday.

On Saturday, Legionella hunters found what they were seeking. It was in a decorative fountain in the lobby of Casa Del Rey, a Mexican restaurant on Mount Rushmore Road.

Water samples from the fountain tested positive for the Legionella pneumophila Benidorm strain that caused the illness in Rapid City, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed about 4 p.m. Saturday.

Doneen Hollingsworth, state secretary of health, made the announcement less than an hour later during a telephone conference call with reporters.

"Since the disease has an incubation period of 10 days, we encourage people who visited Casa Del Rey before Oct. 25 to watch their health for two weeks from the time they were at the restaurant," she said. "If they become ill with a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, they should see their doctor."

She said Legionella hunters turned their attention to the Casa Del Rey after the 11th and 12th victims, who became sick in October, reported that they had been at the restaurant recently.

Health officials have since confirmed that more than two-thirds of the victims recall being at the restaurant before they became sick.

"The new cases in October are unfortunate, but they did give us information we needed to narrow our search and could go back to earlier cases with additional questions," Hollingsworth said. "We found a link, we pursued it, and pieces started falling into place this week."

However, that means one-third of the Legionnaires' disease victims have no known connection to Casa Del Rey. Where did they contract the disease?

"Our investigation continues," Hollingsworth said. "We have samples pending, but this strain … was identified at the beginning of the outbreak, in the middle of the outbreak and at the end of the outbreak."

Hollingsworth said some of the victims might have been at Casa Del Rey but don't remember.

Health officials emphasize that a person can't get Legionnaires' disease from human contact or from food.

For Jon Sharp, Saturday was a restaurant manager's worst nightmare.

At 4:45 p.m., the State Health Department called the general manager of Casa Del Rey to tell him that, yes, the fountain in his lobby had indeed tested positive for the Legionella bacterium strain that has been making people sick.

At 5:30 p.m., media crews began gathering in the parking lot, shooting footage of the building, the sign and curious customers as they filed into the restaurant.

Sharp was quick to note that the colorful fountain has been permanently removed from the lobby. He said the staff turned it off Monday, the day Tim Keane showed up to take water samples. Keane, a Legionnaires' disease hunter hired by the state to track down the Rapid City strain, told them that it could be a source of the bacterium.

A short time later, Sharp said, the fountain was removed from the lobby. Regardless of the outcome of tests, he said, the fountain wasn't worth the risk.

He said the state Health Department routinely inspects Casa Del Rey. The inspectors have never suggested that the fountain in the lobby could be a health hazard, he said.

How will the news affect Casa Del Rey's business? Sharp has no idea. He said he hopes that if he and his staff are open and straightforward - and people realize that the source of the bacterium is no longer there - that patrons will continue to dine at Casa Del Rey.

"We truly are sorry this ever happened," Sharp said. Had he known this type of fountain could be a source of Legionnaires' disease, "we never would have installed the darn thing 12 years ago."

Infectious Legionella can develop in a variety of water systems, including those providing water for domestic consumption, heated spas and decorative fountains.

The bacterium, which lives in water, can become airborne if the water is sprayed or somehow aerated and a person inhales those tiny droplets of water, Lon Kightlinger, state epidemiologist, said.

Since July, health officials have tested more than 270 environmental samples from the Rapid City area. They detected Legionella in 19 samples, but none matched the strains identified from disease victims.

"But this was the first and only location where we found dangerously high levels and the only place with the Benidorm strain," Hollings-worth said.

Keane said he knows of only one other restaurant fountain that harbored the Legionella bacterium. It was in 2002 in a theme restaurant in Tennessee.

Contact Dan Daly at 394-8421 or

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