Unsafe bacteria found in 6 of 11 hotel pools, spasPublic website planned to post statewide test results.
By: Anna Jauhola, The Daily Republic
At the Days Inn and Comfort Inn & Suites in Mitchell, maintenance workers sample the pool and hot tub water each morning. Lifeguards do another test each evening to see if treatment is needed overnight.
“At our pools, because of the water slides and other equipment, they get used pretty hard,” said Dave Helleloid, who manages both properties.
The vigilance of the hotels’ staff is reflected in test results. In four months’ worth of data obtained by The Daily Republic, neither hotel had a failed test.
That wasn’t true of all Mitchell hotels. Among the 11 hotels in Mitchell that contain pools or hot tubs, six had at least one failed test during the period examined.
Hotels are required to send a sample of water each week to the state Department of Health. If a test comes back bacteriologically unsafe, the hotel must send a second sample.
If the second test comes back OK, the hotel faces no consequences. If the test comes back unsafe, the hotel is supposed to close down its pool until it gets two safe samples in a row, said Clark Hepper, director of health protection for the Department of Health.
“They are informed they have to shut it down, but we don’t have the personnel capacity to confirm that with all the facilities,” Hepper said. “It’s more of an honor system.”
Helleloid said he’s never had to shut down his pools. He said if a hot tub water sample shows bacteria, depending on the severity, his employees shock the tub with chlorine or empty it, clean it and refill it.
Should a pool’s test come back positive for bacteria, Helleloid’s employees will shock the pool with chlorine and send a sample to a pool chemical company to get results faster. Typically, the pool would be closed then at night for 12 hours to let the chlorine do its job before the pool reopens in the morning, Helleloid said.
If either hotel suffered two unsafe samples in a row, Helleloid said his employees are trained to spray everything down with muriatic acid diluted with water.
“It will kill anything on the surface,” he said. “We spray everything down — railings, the deck, chairs, ladders.”
Spread of bacteria preventable
The Daily Republic requested pool and hot tub water test results from the Department of Health for May and June 2012 and July 2011 for all hotels with pools or hot tubs in Mitchell. The department delivered results from those months and, for reasons unknown to the newspaper, also from March 2012.
The unsafe tests show the presence of pseudomonas — bacteria that can cause skin rashes and ear and eye infections — which are fairly common on skin. Hotels often suggest guests shower before entering a pool or spa to reduce the risk of transmitting pseudomonas to the water.
If the bacteria are present in the water, the effects are easily eliminated by taking a shower after swimming, Hepper said. Lon Kightlinger, state epidemiologist, said bacteria are found weekly in water samples hotels send to the state lab. “I’m not saying every hotel pool has a positive test every week, but what I see is the list of those that are positive,” he said. Kightlinger said pseudomonas are hotel pools and hot tubs. The state also tests for total coliform, which is an indicator of fecal matter in the water. Fecal matter can be present when a child or adult with diarrhea swims in the pool and has an accident, a child swims in a full diaper, or a person swims who hasn’t cleaned thoroughly.
Waterborne illnesses can result if a person ingests water tainted with fecal matter, Kightlinger said. Cryptosporidiosis — “crypto” for short — is most common and causes diarrhea and other gastrointestinal issues. Other illnesses can include norovirus and E. Coli.
Kightlinger said common sense should help people prevent infections from both pseudomonas and crypto. Hotel guests should shower before entering the pool or hot tub and avoid swallowing pool water. He said hotels should post signs forbidding guests from swimming if they have diarrhea.
“I think the worst is people that swim with diarrhea,” he said. “People have to pay attention to themselves and be responsible.”
Testing and violations
The Department of Health expects hotels to send in the required tests but acknowledges that, with its limited manpower, it cannot be sure every single hotel is sending in every required test.
Procedure dictates that if a hotel has not sent in a test, the department sends a violation notice to the hotel. If it has repeat violations, the state would do a 60-day follow-up inspection, Hepper said.
“At the current time, our database system doesn’t give us the capability to monitor the several hundred that have water facilities,” Hepper said. “With a new licensing system in the process of being implemented, one of the components will help monitor the sampling of those establishments. We monitor now through the inspection process.”
If a hotel were to have continued violations, the state would bring hotel officials in for a hearing and initiate licensing action such as suspending the ability to operate a pool or hot tub.
Hepper said the state has never suspended or revoked a hotel’s license for poor operation of a pool or hot tub.
The test results The Daily Republic received were only the ones for which pools were deemed unsafe for swimming. Hepper said the state does not keep the results for pools deemed safe.
“Just the vast number of hard copies we’d have to deal with and the enormous amount of paperwork we’d have to deal with, it’s not necessary,” Hepper said. “It’s not something we needed to keep based on the facilities in good standing with us.”
That will soon change.
As of July 2, the department completed the first phase of its switch to a digital database system. Hepper said the transition wasn’t exactly smooth, but it worked.
Pool and hot tub test results for hotels around the state will eventually be available to the public on the Internet, but not until next year.
“It’ll be enhanced next July. That’s when you’re going to see scores and critical violations,” Hepper said. “You can click on the score and bring up the inspection sheet.”
The department also is working to provide online applications and payment for lodging establishments, food service and campgrounds licensing.
Unsafe results require action
Tourist season in Mitchell begins in May and doesn’t end until after pheasant hunting season in early January. Matt Culhane, owner and manager of Thunderbird Lodge in Mitchell, said his employees test the water in the hotel’s hot tub every day and send the required water sample to the state once per week.
“At least twice a week, we drain the hot tub and use a cleaning solution, usually bleach, to really kill everything,” Culhane said. “We get into the crevices of the jets, the skim box and wipe down the whole area.”
He said busy times require his maintenance crew to empty and clean the hotel’s hot tub more often. Thunderbird Lodge offers an on-site liquor store, so guests bring alcohol into the hot tub area and sometimes spill it into the water.
“Not that that results in a positive test, but if we don’t change the water that day, it could be an issue,” Culhane said.
If such an issue arises, Culhane and his employees empty the tub and disinfect it. They also take out the filters and clean them with a bleach solution, or install new filters.
“That typically solves the issue,” he said.
Thunderbird Lodge was one of the hotels with a water sample deemed unsafe for swimming in the records checked by The Daily Republic. The hotel failed a test in May.
The Ramada Inn & Suites in Mitchell also tests its pool and hot tub each day to ensure the water is safe for swimming. Brian Leemaster, who became general manager in June, said the hotel hasn’t had a bad test since then.
“If we had anything positive, we’d certainly do whatever is needed to remedy it,” he said.
Prior to Leemaster’s employment, Ramada’s hot tub tested positive for pseudomonas and was deemed bacteriologically unsafe for swimming three times during the three months checked by The Daily Republic — once in March and twice in May. The failed May tests were 14 days apart.
“Hot tubs are really hard to keep clean all the time,” said Larry Gebel, head of maintenance at Ramada Inn & Suites.
When there is an issue with the hot tub, he drains the tub, cleans it out and washes the filters prior to refilling the tub.
Gebel tests the hot tub water each day. To prevent bacteria from growing in the tub, he drains it every Monday and Friday to clean it and washes the filters with warm water and bleach.
Gebel said he has never had a positive sample for bacteria in the pool water, which he tests each day. If he had an issue, Gebel said, he would shock the pool with chlorine, which is a two-hour process.
The Ramada has not had to close its pool or hot tub due to health issues, Leemaster said, but if it happens in the future it would be easily done. A gate surrounds the pool, which would make it easy to block off the pool until the problem is solved.
At Thunderbird Lodge, since Culhane bought the hotel in 2008, he said he’s never had to shut down the spa area. Should that happen, he said he’d likely have a professional cleaning company come in to ensure the entire area is cleaned thoroughly.
If the hotel receives an unsafe test, Culhane said he takes it seriously.
“We take the necessary steps to make sure the tests come back properly the next time.”