SACRAMENTO — The western regional office of the Social Security Administration in Richmond will remain closed for at least a week after the death of a building janitor who had Legionnaires' disease, officials said Monday.
Since 37-year-old Rosalind Sheffield died a week ago, health experts said they have identified three more confirmed cases of the disease and five probable cases among people who worked in the building--including another custodian who is hospitalized in critical condition.
All 1,200 workers in the office building were sent home Thursday on indefinite leave. On Friday, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease was found in the ventilation system that serves the basement area where Sheffield often worked.
"Our investigation is centering on how Legionnaires' disease could have gotten into the air handling system for the basement of the building," said Dr. George Rutherford, chief of the infectious disease branch of the state Department of Health Services.
The discovery of Legionnaires' disease touched off widespread concern among the Social Security employees, who serve California and 11 other western states. So far, more than 160 workers have gone to an impromptu medical screening center set up by federal health officials for tests and medical advice.
The disease, discovered in 1976 when it struck a convention of the American Legion in Philadelphia, grows in water and can be spread through the air by air-conditioning systems that create a fine mist.
Last year, 1,259 cases of Legionnaires' disease were reported in the United States, including 47 in California and 15 in Los Angeles County, according to state and federal records. But health officials believe that many more cases of the disease, which casues pneumonia, are never traced to the Legionella bacteria.
Sheffield, who worked for an independent janitorial service, was stricken on Sept. 4 and died five days later.
Of the eight other people believed to have the disease, all but one also worked in the basement, Rutherford said. Most of them became ill in August and have recovered, he added.
Health officials are studying the records of other employees who have been ill to see if there may be additional cases of Legionnaires' disease that went unrecognized. Blood tests to check for the presence of the disease will be given to any employee who asks, Social Security officials said.
Work crews have begun eliminating the bacteria by cleaning out the water in the huge cooling towers for the basement air conditioner and are expected to finish later this week, said Leslie Walker, a spokeswoman for the federal agency.
Most of the work done at the six-story, 500,000-square-foot office building has been shifted to five regional centers. Mailing of next month's Social Security checks will not be held up in the 12 states served by the office, Walker said, but the handling of some complex cases could be delayed.