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One dead in Legionnaires' outbreak at VA hospital in Pittsburgh

| Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, 6:18 p.m.
Roiled by a fatal disease outbreak, a secret waiting list and congressional criticism, federal veterans hospitals in Allegheny County might be hard-pressed to recruit a top-tier executive who could stabilize the beleaguered health care network, management scholars warn.
Roiled by a fatal disease outbreak, a secret waiting list and congressional criticism, federal veterans hospitals in Allegheny County might be hard-pressed to recruit a top-tier executive who could stabilize the beleaguered health care network, management scholars warn.

A patient who died of Legionnaires' disease likely contracted the ailment from water in a VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System hospital, the Allegheny County Health Department reported on Friday evening.

Dr. Ron Voorhees, the acting county health director, confirmed the death but said he could not release the patient's identity or time of death or other information about the patient because of federal privacy laws.

It appears the patient was one of five identified in a Legionnaires' outbreak inside the University Drive Campus in Oakland, said Voorhees.

VA spokesman David Cowgill declined to comment, citing patient confidentiality laws. A state Department of Health spokeswoman said she could not comment.

Four others who contracted Legionnaires' — a form of pneumonia — were treated and released in the outbreak, according to the VA. It announced the problem at the University Drive Campus on Nov. 16.

In a statement on Friday, the VA acknowledged those cases developed inside the hospital.

A water treatment system meant to prevent Legionella bacteria there “may not be as effective as previously thought, as is the case in other health systems using this method” to fight the bacteria, Cowgill wrote in an email Nov. 16.

He said the University Drive facility is shifting from its longtime treatment system — a copper-silver ionization set-up — to a chlorination system. The campus was among the first anywhere to use copper-silver ionization to prevent the disease when it adopted the technology in 1993.

“It certainly was at best ironic that a place that pioneered water treatment to eliminate Legionella has had cases” of Legionnaires' disease, Voorhees said.

“They've been testing all along” for the bacteria, he said.

About two months ago, he said, the hospital saw a couple of Legionnaires' cases that may have originated within the facility.

“Once they recognized they had a problem, we think they took appropriate actions,” Voorhees said.

Two former VA employees who advocated for copper-silver at the Oakland hospital — Dr. Victor Yu and microbiology researcher Janet E. Stout — said the system may not have been well maintained recently. Their research shows copper-silver failures often stem from poor maintenance or monitoring practices, they said.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, called the patient's death “a terrible tragedy.”

“Our nation's veterans make great sacrifices to serve this country and they deserve the best care,” Casey said. “The VA should act expeditiously to investigate these cases to ensure that every appropriate measure is put in place so this never happens again.

“The veterans at this hospital and their families deserve answers as to how this happened and immediate steps must be taken to ensure veterans at this hospital and others across Pennsylvania have access to clean water.”

The VA has not said definitively what caused the outbreak, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is “compiling a report of its findings,” CDC spokesman Thomas Skinner said.

Also on Friday, the VA announced it lifted water-use restrictions at the University Drive Campus. People at the hospital had been using bottled water and hand sanitizer, among other provisions, for a couple of weeks.

Efforts to cleanse its water system of Legionella were successful, the VA reported.

Restrictions remain at the VA's Highland Drive Campus and at the H.J. Heinz Campus on Delafield Road, Cowgill said. He said tests identified Legionella bacteria in the water system at the Heinz campus, though the situation at the Highland Drive Campus, an office facility slated for closure, was unclear.

One of the cases identified in the University Drive outbreak “could have occurred at either the University Drive Campus or the Heinz Campus,” Cowgill wrote via email. He reported a “very high probability that it occurred at the University Drive Campus.”

The University Drive facility has counted 29 Legionnaires' cases since January 2011, according to the VA. “Extensive reviews” found five began within the hospital, eight developed elsewhere, and 16 have unknown origins, the department reported.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or

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