Legionella bacteria found at Altoona VA hospital but officials say water safe

| Tuesday, June 4, 2013, 11:39 p.m.

Waterborne Legionella bacteria found in Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities in Pittsburgh, Butler and North Franklin turned up last month in a VA hospital in Blair County, the VA confirmed Tuesday.

But VA spokeswoman Andrea R. Young said the strain discovered at the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona does not cause Legionnaires' disease — unlike the bug identified in a deadly outbreak in Pittsburgh in 2011 and 2012. She said water test results on May 28 showed no Legionella pneumophila, the bacteria type blamed in more than 90 percent of reported Legionnaires' cases.

“Our water is currently safe and has been safe to use and drink,” Young told the Tribune-Review in an email, the preferred form of communications by VA spokespeople. She said the Altoona VA flushed its water system May 29 with superheated water and injected chlorine to destroy the bacteria.

Young said the facility has had no reported Legionnaires' cases related to the contamination, which she identified as Legionella anisa. That type of the bacteria is common in water supplies and causes illness rarely, likely accounting for fewer than 1 percent of all Legionnaires' cases, said Janet Stout, a former VA microbiologist who runs the Special Pathogens Laboratory, Uptown.

Still, the discovery at the Altoona hospital rattled the American Federation of Government Employees, a national union that represents 570 workers there and nearly 8,900 in Veterans Integrated Service Network 4. The Pittsburgh-based VA service region includes medical centers and clinics in most of Pennsylvania and all or parts of five neighboring states.

In a May 31 letter obtained by the Trib, AFGE General Counsel David A. Borer asked the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate the presence of Legionella in VA facilities across Pennsylvania.

“The fact that this is continuing to recur — we thought there needs to be a second set of eyes on this,” AFGE lawyer J. Ward Morrow told the Trib. “The question for us is not specifically this situation (in Altoona) but the fact that this keeps happening, and it keeps happening in Pennsylvania.”

Borer, in his letter, argued workers and patients need assurance that the VA provides a safe environment. He said VISN4 and its director, Michael Moreland, seem to have failed in keeping healthy facilities and in maintaining systems designed to prevent Legionella.

OSHA spokesman Jesse Lawder said Borer's request is under review. VISN4 spokesman David Cowgill did not respond Tuesday to Trib calls and emails for comment.

Meanwhile, AFGE officials cited several known Legionella incidents in VISN4. The Pittsburgh VA outbreak reported from February 2011 to November 2012 sickened as many as 21 veterans at the Oakland and O'Hara campuses, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Five of them died, and the outbreak remains under review by the VA Office of Inspector General, the U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania and a congressional subcommittee.

The VA Butler Healthcare campus announced in December it discovered Legionella but had identified no Legionnaires' cases in connection with the finding. A VA outpatient clinic at Washington Crown Center mall in North Franklin disclosed on May 16 that it, too, found low levels of the bacteria. No related Legionnaires' cases have been reported there, either.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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