Potentially deadly Legionella bacteria found at UPMC Presbyterian hospital

The main entrance of UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland.
The main entrance of UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland.
Photo by Trib Total Media
Luis Fábregas
| Tuesday, July 15, 2014, 10:54 p.m.

Infection control workers at UPMC Presbyterian hospital this week found Legionella bacteria in sinks in three patient rooms, but officials said no patients have tested positive for Legionnaires' disease, a potentially fatal pneumonia.

As a preventive measure, officials at the region's largest hospital moved 11 patients from the affected unit to other parts of the hospital, Tami Minnier, UPMC's chief quality officer, said on Tuesday. The patients are being monitored.

Workers identified the Legionella contamination in a pulmonary medicine unit on the hospital's 10th floor, she said. The unit, which houses vulnerable patients with lung disease, recently was remodeled and routine water testing was done when it reopened.

“When you go and look for something really aggressively and you monitor it, and you track it, you find it,” Minnier said. “The most important thing is that when you find it, you remediate it. It does not mean that anything is wrong.”

UPMC reported the Legionella finding to the Allegheny County Health Department and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

“They're taking appropriate steps to deal with the issue,” said Guillermo Cole, spokesman for the county Health Department.

Legionella occur naturally in the environment, and health experts have said Western Pennsylvania's combination of abundant water and old plumbing can help the bacteria to flourish.

“Regardless of the disinfection technology, because a water distribution system is complex and the water doesn't evenly flow through the system, you may have positivity despite having disinfection,” said Janet Stout, a microbiologist and director of the Special Pathogens Laboratory, Uptown.

UPMC officials said they are intentionally aggressive about monitoring Legionella since discovering the bacteria in ice machines at Presby two months ago. The bacteria, uncovered in May, contributed to one patient's death and sickened two others, hospital officials said.

An extensive overhaul and sterilization of ice machines throughout UPMC's 20 hospitals resulted.

The county Health Department logs 70 to 100 cases of Legionnaires' disease each year. Strong awareness of the Legionella risk helps drive reporting in the county, which accounted for 417 of at least 1,910 Legionnaires' cases reported statewide between 2008 and 2013, according to state health data.

Nearly 8 percent of the local cases were fatal.

UPMC is using a heat-and-flush process to rid plumbing of the bacteria, which can multiply in warm water. It could take about a week to complete the process, Minnier said.

Patients in the affected unit have lung problems that Legionella could exacerbate. The bacteria cause a severe form of pneumonia, which people can contract by breathing mist or vapor containing the bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Patients in the unit always get bottled water as a precaution, regardless of any history of Legionella in the facility, Minnier said.

Separately, workers at Family House residences in Oakland heated and flushed the pipes last month because Legionella appeared in tap water at the University Place and McKee Place facilities, said Randy Struk, president-elect of the Family House board. The nonprofit group offers short-term housing for medical patients and their families.

One resident at the University Place location came down with Legionnaires' disease, although it isn't clear whether the person contracted the illness at Family House, Struk said. He believes the person has been released from a hospital.

“We need to and want to address this issue,” regardless of where the patient developed Legionnaires', Struk said.

Struk said Family House hired the Special Pathogens Laboratory to develop more permanent measures to control Legionella at its four Pittsburgh facilities.

Staff writer Adam Smeltz contributed to this report. Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media's medical editor. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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