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Oakland VA patients diagnosed with pneumonia caused by Legionnaires' disease

| Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, 1:52 p.m.
Water fountain in hall at the VA Hospital in Oakland. Submitted photo
On Nov. 16, 2012, the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System in Oakland covered sinks and water fountains with “do not use” signs.
Reports of an outbreak of Legionnaire's disease has occurred at the VA Hospital in Oakland, Friday, November 16th, 2012. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review

Four patients at VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System's University Drive Campus in Oakland this week developed pneumonia caused by Legionnaires' disease, and more might have been exposed to the potentially deadly bacteria, officials said on Friday.

The source of the infection was traced to the hospital's water distribution system, prompting workers to change the way the system is disinfected.

The four Legionnaires' patients, whose identities cannot be released by hospital officials according to federal law, were successfully treated with “good outcomes” and have been released from the hospital, said Dave Cowgill, spokesman for VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

Cowgill wrote in an email that the restrictions on water use started Friday and would remain in effect until administrators are sure the bacteria is gone. Workers distributed bottled water to be used by patients and visitors.

An internal memo to medical staff from infection control chief Robert Muder obtained by the Tribune-Review asked physicians to monitor other patients for hospital-acquired Legionnaires' infections because the incubation period can be as long as 14 days.

In the memo, Muder asked doctors to treat any other patients determined to be affected with a “timely administration of antibiotics” and to report all new diagnoses of pneumonia to the infectious disease department within 30 days. He could not be reached for comment.

The hospital conducted an investigation with the help of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and found an elevated concentration of the bacteria called Legionella, which tends to survive in the moist air-conditioning systems of large buildings and within waterlines and storage systems that get irregular or little use.

Water fountains inside the hospital on Friday were covered with signs: “Due to a water line problem, this fountain is out of service.” Employees said they were told not to drink the water or use the ice machine.

“The doctor came in and said, ‘Don't wash your hands, don't drink the water, and don't take a shower,'” said one patient who declined to give his name.

Clayton Pownell, a Vietnam War veteran, and his wife, Carolyn, said they were told not to use the water during their visit.

“As long as they have those hand sanitizers, it'll be OK,” said Clayton Pownell, 59, of Altoona.

The disease is contracted by inhaling small droplets of contaminated water in which the bacterium grows, officials said. It is named after an outbreak in July 1976 at the Pennsylvania American Legion convention in the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia.

The hospital said remedial efforts were under way to eliminate the bacteria from its water system.

“Our existing copper-silver ionization system, which reduces the presence of Legionella in water, may not be as effective as previously thought, as is the case in other health systems using this method,” Cowgill said. “Consequently, we are shifting to a chlorination system to ensure better control.”

Most people exposed to the Legionella bacteria do not become ill. Elderly people, smokers and individuals with chronic lung disease or weakened immune systems are more vulnerable.

Trib Total Media staff writer Craig Smith contributed to this report. Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or

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