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Allegheny County Health Department developing Legionella guidelines

| Monday, April 15, 2013, 12:13 a.m.

While regular testing for Legionella bacteria is conducted in the four nursing homes operated by Allegheny County, health officials do not know how many similar facilities take steps to prevent outbreaks of the potentially deadly disease.

The Allegheny County Health Department is in the early stages of assembling a regional task force to develop guidelines to help nursing homes, hospitals and other facilities combat outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease, acting director Dr. Ronald Voorhees said on Sunday.

The need for such a task force was announced in late March after outbreaks at two local Veterans Affairs hospitals that killed five people. On Saturday, workers at a senior citizens apartment building in Lawrenceville were completing work to rid the water system of Legionella bacteria because a resident contracted pneumonia from the bacteria.

There are no national or state standards or requirements for medical facilities to test for Legionella, Voorhees said.

“In the absence of solid guidelines, we are trying to develop a task force to address this as best we can locally,” he said. “At the present time, we have no idea how many facilities in the county are testing or treating their water systems, so we certainly don't want to wait on this.”

Voorhees said the task force will include personnel from hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities where medically vulnerable people live. He did not give a time frame for when the group will be formed.

The water system is tested at the county's four John J. Kane nursing homes, which have 1,324 patients, Voorhees said.

About 100 cases of Legionnaires' disease, a potentially fatal form of pneumonia, are reported in Allegheny County each year, he said.

Legionnaires' disease is caused by the Legionella bacteria, which is found naturally in the environment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The bacteria grows best in warm water and is most frequently found in fixtures such as hot tubs, hot water tanks and large plumbing systems that have not been properly cleaned and disinfected, according to the CDC.

Steps to rid the bacteria from pipes include super-heated flushing of pipes and the installation of copper-silver ionization systems that add charged particles to water.

The plumbing at the VA's new $75 million outpatient center in Butler will include a system that treats water with ultraviolet rays to kill the bacteria. The Butler VA discovered Legionella bacteria in its water system on Dec. 11 during routine testing, but no patients were sickened.

The VA Pittsburgh plans a $10 million upgrade to its water system to prevent outbreaks.

Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or tlarussa@tribweb.com.

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