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VA reports another Legionella death of patient from Oakland hospital

Security guards patrol the sidewalk in front of a Veterans Affairs hospital in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. Another veteran treated for pneumonia in the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System died after contracting the Legionella bacteria, the VA said on Friday, Feb. 8. AP photo

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By Adam Smeltz
Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, 6:36 p.m.

Another veteran treated for pneumonia in the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System died from contracting Legionella bacteria, the VA said on Friday.

Spokesman David Cowgill said the patient contracted the bacteria, which causes the Legionnaires' form of pneumonia, and died in late January. Test results on Friday confirmed the presence of Legionella, he said.

But it is not clear whether the veteran contracted the bacteria in the VA's Pittsburgh system, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found an in-house Legionnaires' outbreak sickened as many as 21 veterans and killed as many as five since January 2011.

Cowgill would not release the name of the deceased veteran.

Legionnaires' cases treated at the Pittsburgh VA have included illnesses that began in the federal hospital system and elsewhere. Areas of the Oakland VA hospital where the veteran received treatment in the recent case tested negative for the bacteria, Cowgill said.

“The source of the veteran's infection remains unknown,” he wrote in an email. “Additional testing by the CDC will assist in determining whether this case was hospital- or community-acquired. These test results are not expected to be available for several weeks.”

Tests in the Oakland hospital and the VA's H.J. Heinz Campus in O'Hara revealed Legionella bacteria in their tap water late last year. Both hospitals purged their pipes and switched to new water treatment systems.

Workers conduct environmental sampling of hospital water every two weeks and found the cleaning efforts were successful, Cowgill wrote.

Still, Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, remains concerned over the outbreak.

“The fact is we'll see what these tests show. But it's unacceptable that you could have a situation where somebody might contract this disease again after what happened last year,” Rothfus said.

He and Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, said a congressional investigation under the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs will continue.

An investigative subcommittee hearing on Tuesday found “falsification of records, breakdowns in best practices (and) employees discouraged by management from testifying in this congressional investigation,” Murphy said.

“My deepest condolences go out to the family and all those families impacted by the Legionnaires' outbreak,” he said in a written statement on Friday night. “Rest assured we will continue in our efforts to get answers for our veterans, their families and all who work at the VA in Pittsburgh.”

As part of the congressional review, Murphy asked the investigative subcommittee to look into concerns over the disclosure of earlier hazardous conditions in the hospital system.

Rep. Mike Coffman, the Colorado Republican leading the subcommittee, has told VA officials to contact the panel within a month “to chart out the road ahead.”

A review by the VA Office of Inspector General is looking at disclosure practices, though Cowgill has said the hospitals “made disclosures to all affected patients or their representatives.”

The CDC advised Pittsburgh VA officials on Oct. 30 that contaminated tap water was causing pneumonia cases, a VA administrator testified on Tuesday.

Under federal disclosure rules, the discovery should have prompted thorough notifications to current and former pneumonia patients who might have been sickened by the water, lawyers have said.

At least two families whose relatives died of pneumonia at the Pittsburgh VA appear to have received no official disclosures, according to their lawyers.

Downtown-based attorney Harry S. Cohen said the VA's announcement about the latest fatality “appears more public relations-minded than anything else.”

“The statement appears to be more self-congratulatory than informative,” said Cohen, who represents the family of late World War II veteran William E. Nicklas, 87, of Hampton. Nicklas died of Legionnaires' disease in November in the Oakland VA hospital.

John N. Zervanos, a Philadelphia attorney who represents the family of the late John Ciarolla, 83, of North Versailles, said the VA should take full responsibility if the CDC finds a hospital connection in the latest death. Ciarolla died of pneumonia in the hospital in July 2011.

“I think they're taking precautions now and doing due diligence with regard to disclosure now because the cat's out of the bag,” Zervanos said. “The knee-jerk reaction in all these situations is going to be: ‘Is the VA responsible?'”

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

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