Pittsburgh VA extends water restrictions at Oakland facility due to Legionella

The VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System has extended water restrictions at its University Drive location in Oakland due to the discovery of Legionella bacteria.

Water restrictions were enacted in late January as employees worked to kill Legionella bacteria in Building 1. Officials said those restrictions have been extended to allow additional time to sanitize water supply lines that were repaired during the remediation process and to complete repeat water sample testing.

Health care teams diagnosed one patient with Legionella pneumonia last week. The patient was admitted, treated with antibiotics, released and has fully recovered, according to a news release from the VA.

“At this time, evidence suggests the patient contracted Legionella pneumonia in the community.  The type of Legionella bacteria that caused the illness has not been detected at the University Drive location in nearly two years despite the sampling of almost 4,000 fixtures during that time and is not the type that caused the current water restrictions in Building 1,” the news release stated.

The restrictions were put in place because of an increase in water samples returning positive legionella bacteria in January. The person who was diagnosed was a patient, and had visited the campus during the 10 day onset of the illness as an outpatient.

The person came to the VA emergency room with symptoms, was diagnosed, admitted as an inpatient, was treated and recovered.

“In accordance with VA directives and hospital protocols, additional water samples were collected in the areas of Building 29, where  the diagnosed patient visited as an outpatient during the onset of illness. The samples are undergoing testing for Legionella bacteria. To date, no samples have returned positive for the type of Legionella bacteria that caused the illness,” the news release stated. Results are expected in several weeks.

Dr. Cornelius Clancy, chief of infectious diseases at VA Pittsburgh, said patient and staff safety will be the No. 1 priority, especially after deadly cases happening at the facility in the past. At least five patients' deaths were linked to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak at the Pittsburgh VA system in 2011 and 2012.

"We have no evidence that she got (Legionella) from the water here. We actually have ID'd the specific type of Legionella that's causing Legionella through the sample we got," Clancy said.

He said that particular bacteria has not been found in the VA's water in almost two years.

Since water restrictions have been in place, facilities technicians completed previously planned infrastructure improvements, including repairs of a major water supply line. Corrosion and leaks affecting some feeder pipes were identified and fixed. Water systems are also currently being sanitized.

"We've got an incredibly rigorous, proactive program which not only involves testing water samples, but also every veteran with suspected pneumonia here," Clancy said.

A patient at the facility agreed.

"I'm still safe," the patient, who did not want to be identified, said. "I still feel safe."

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When sanitization is complete, additional water samples will be collected and tested to ensure Legionella bacteria has been removed. VA officials said it is not known how long this process will take or how long the current water restrictions will continue.

The water restrictions went into effect after samples from five sinks in a vacant administrative unit under renovation returned positive on Jan. 6. On Jan. 15, samples from two adjacent sinks returned positive. On Jan. 25, samples from two sinks in an outpatient clinic and one sample from a supply line returned positive, and on Jan. 27, two additional samples from another supply line returned positive.

“The restrictions include no use of the facility’s water supply for ice, drinking, hand-washing, showering or bathing. We continue to have available hand-washing stations and supply the affected areas with bagged ice, bottled water and bag baths for bathing,” the news release stated.

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