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Legionnaires' disease water restrictions back in place at VA Oakland

| Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, 7:09 p.m.

Water restrictions are in place at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Oakland because officials found “a small amount” of the bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease.

A Legionnaires' outbreak at that facility, first disclosed 11 months ago, lasted almost two years and sickened at least 21 veterans, five of whom died. As congressional and internal VA investigators probed the outbreak, administrators implemented more stringent testing standards for the Legionella bacteria — standards that VA spokesman David Cowgill credited with detecting the bacteria on Oct. 7.

“Because of the hyper-vigilance demonstrated by our updated surveillance program, we immediately performed shock chlorination on both the hot and cold plumbing loops” of the hospital on University Drive, Cowgill said.

Cowgill declined to specify where in the building the bacteria were found or how much of the hospital is affected by the water restrictions, offering only that it was in “a limited number of (plumbing) fixtures.”

The restrictions at the hospital won't be lifted until tests show the bacteria are gone. That could take as long as two weeks, he said.

“On Oct. 7, we talked individually to each of the veterans hospitalized in this building, or their families, to let them know about the situation,” Cowgill said. “Our goal is to minimize any inconvenience to veterans, family members and staff. Only this one building at our University Drive campus is affected.”

Testers measure Legionella in “colony forming units,” or CFUs. National VA guidelines say hospitals should use tests that can detect as few as 10 CFUs per milliliter of water. In the months after the outbreak, the VA Pittsburgh announced a zero-tolerance approach in which even one CFU triggers decontamination procedures.

Cowgill declined to specify the CFUs detected but said it “would not have been found by most commercial laboratories.” That suggests — though does not confirm — that the Legionella count was below the 10 CFU threshold.

Administrators restricted water usage at the VA's O'Hara hospital campus in August after the bacteria was found in a patient's room there. Cowgill said then that the concentration was 7 CFUs per milliliter.

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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