At least one patient or staffer has potentially contracted Legionella infection inside the Washington D.C. VA Medical Center, the News4 I-Team has learned. The medical center said it is treating its water system and asked patients to drink bottled water, wash hands with sanitizer and bathe with sanitary wipes.
In an email to staffers Wednesday morning, medical center director Michael Heimall said, "In order to ensure the safety of our Veterans and our Staff, we have been working over night to implement immediate remediation of our water system. For these reasons, we are asking everyone to refrain from drinking water from the system, showering and hand washing until we complete the remediation."
His email said, "All patients, employees, volunteers and visitors are to use hand sanitizer in lieu of soap and water. In instances where hand washing with soap and water is necessary, please use bottled water."
Multiple staffers alerted the I-Team to the warnings about the water system.
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The VA did not respond to inquiries about whether the potential case of Legionella involves a staffer or patient. Nor did the agency answer questions about how the reduction in water service might impact initiatives to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
In a statement the agency said a cleaning of the water system was completed Thursday. The statement said, “The facility has conducted a complete remediation of the water system, raising the water temperature to over 160 degrees and flushing the system for 30 minutes, killing any amount of Legionella bacteria that may have been in our system.”
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Legionella infection can have symptoms similar to pneumonia and is more likely to impact patients over the age of 60 and those who smoke or suffer other respiratory ailments, according to VA guidance issued by administrators who oversee the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center and other mid-Atlantic VA facilities. "Some people can develop Legionella pneumonia after breathing in a mist or vapor (small droplets of water in the air) containing the bacteria," according to the guidance.
A fatal outbreak of Legionella led to a formal congressional investigation into the VA hospital in Pittsburgh in 2013. Legionella has impacted other VA medical centers in the year since.
The email from Heimall said the medical center had planned to conduct a "thermal eradication" on the water system Thursday at 4 a.m., raising the temperature of the water to 160 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes. His email said staffers are also cleaning ice machines.
Warning signs, alerting to concerns about water quality, have been hung in the building, according to staffers.
Read the statement from the VA;
On September 1, Washington DC VA Medical Center staff identified a single potential case of hospital acquired Legionella infection.
Since then, the facility has conducted a complete remediation of the water system, raising the water temperature to over 160 degrees and flushing the system for 30 minutes, killing any amount of Legionella bacteria that may have been in our system.
As a result of the facility’s swift action, there is no longer any risk to Veterans and employees, and all Veterans and employees can now use and drink the facility’s water as usual.
Legionella is found naturally in the environment and many natural water sources contain Legionella, which is precisely why the Washington DC VA Medical Center has a robust water safety program that tests regularly for a wide variety of waterborne hazards. Legionella is a common and persistent problem world-wide and in no way limited to the Washington DC VA Medical Center.
The Washington DC VA Medical Center will continue to take water samples to culture for Legionella and monitor patients for indications of Legionella infection.