Legionnaires' probe at Pittsburgh VA widening

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have previously been investigating five cases reported last month, including one patient who died Nov. 23.

The VA is not releasing details on the patient’s death, but Dr. Janet Stout, a former VA employee and world-renowned expert on hospital-acquired Legionnaires' disease, confirmed the man’s death to Channel 4 Action News Investigator Jim Parsons on Friday.

Stout and colleague Victor Yu both left the VA six years ago after a disagreement with management. They told Parsons the VA bears responsibility for the outbreak because it didn’t properly maintain the water filtration system that they designed.

“I think that is the single-most unfortunate incidence here, where a high price was paid because the infrastructure wasn't there,” said Yu. “You come to the hospital be treated, and so it's an utter catastrophe that when you come into the hospital, you contract an infection that is preventable.”

On Tuesday, a union official confirmed to Channel 4 Action News’ Paul Van Osdol that at least three hospital workers have contracted pneumonia in the past few weeks and are being tested for Legionnaires'.

VA spokesman David Cowgill has confirmed that Pittsburgh VA officials have now found Legionella bacteria in the water supply at its H.J. Heinz Campus, near Aspinwall, and are restricting water use there while the filtration system is treated with chlorine.

"You have to remember that the risk factors for Legionnaires' disease -- smoking, chronic lung disease, diabetes -- are not particular to patients that are in the hospital. Employees also have those conditions," said Stout.

Yu told Van Osdol the VA should have taken stronger measures last year when as many as 16 patients showed signs of Legionnaires'.

"If even one of them had Legionnaires' disease acquired in the hospital, that shows there was really serious mismanagement," said Yu.

On Friday, a woman, who did not want to be identified, told Parsons her partner -- a 13-year Army veteran -- has been living at the VA nursing home in Aspinwall, where the water has been turned off for two weeks after the bacteria was discovered.

“I've never heard of a hospital operating two weeks without water. Somebody has to do something. They spend millions of dollars on cosmetic construction. Nobody thought about the water?” she said.

The same thing happened last month at the University Drive campus hospital in Pittsburgh's Oakland section, where the patient who died, the union workers and the other patients that the VA acknowledged were treated for Legionella had been. Water restrictions at that hospital were lifted Friday after two weeks of chlorination and other cleaning.

Legionnaires' disease is caused when water tainted with a certain bacteria is inhaled into the lungs. The disease can lead to pneumonia.

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