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VA University Drive faces 2 more weeks of water restrictions

| Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012, 12:15 a.m.

Water restrictions will remain in place for two more weeks at the VA University Drive hospital campus in Oakland because of last week's discovery that the water system caused an outbreak of Legionnaire's disease, officials said Monday.

Doctors diagnosed four patients with the potentially fatal respiratory disease, and the 146-bed hospital remains on alert for more cases. The four patients recovered and were discharged.

The restrictions, which have been in place since Friday, include using water buffaloes for cooking and cleaning and using hand sanitizers instead of soap and water for hand-washing. Patients, visitors and employees have been instructed not to drink water, and officials have brought in bottled water as well as bagged water to be used for patients' baths.

Officials are looking to install shower heads that will filter contaminants and bring hand-pumping stations for hand washing, said Dave Cowgill, spokesman for the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

The Legionella bacteria, which causes the disease, tends to survive within waterlines and moist air-conditioning systems. It is contracted by inhaling contaminated water but not person-to-person.

“We have completed cleaning the system with hyperchlorinization and flushing,” Cowgill said in an email. “The water system was never shut off. However, to ensure the safety of our water supply, it will take up to two weeks to confirm that repeat environmental samples are negative.”

It can take up to two weeks for Legionella cultures to grow, and officials want to leave the measures in place for that period while they analyze test samples, he said.

Cowgill said the restrictions have not interfered with use of toilets at the facility. Although officials restricted water use, doctors continue to perform surgeries. Operating room workers are using a special supply of distilled water during and after surgical procedures.

The hospital previously used a copper-silver ionization method to disinfect its water distribution system and fight Legionella. Officials switched to a chlorination system last week and have flushed the system.

Most people exposed to Legionella do not become ill. Elderly people, smokers and those with chronic lung disease or weakened immune systems are more vulnerable and can develop symptoms such as high fever, chills and cough.

Up to 18,000 people are hospitalized every year with the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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