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Precautions at Sacred Heart

FRIDAY, APRIL 29, 2011

Legionnaires’ cases prompt safety efforts

 Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center is restricting showers, serving bottled water and replacing parts of its water system after three patients tested positive for the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease.

The first patient, an elderly man with a weakened immune system, died. Dr. Jeff Collins, chief medical officer of Sacred Heart, said the bacterial infection has not been blamed for his death.

Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested the hospital’s water system last week and found bacteria clusters, according to preliminary findings.

Sacred Heart Chief Executive Officer Elaine Couture said Thursday that the hospital had already cleaned some of its tanks and was preparing to disinfect the rest of its system as early as Monday.

“We’re going to ensure the safety of our patients,” she said.

Two of the patients were found in January to have legionella bacteria, which causes Legionnaires’. The disease is a type of pneumonia, or lung infection. Both patients were elderly with multiple chronic illnesses that resulted in repeated visits to the hospital.

A formal investigation of the death has not been ordered or sought, said Dr. Joel McCullough, health officer for the Spokane Regional Health District. Legionella bacteria infections are reportable diseases under state law.

Physicians in the community were not notified of the problem until Thursday.

When a second case was discovered in a patient that had stayed in the same room – though at a different time – as the first patient, hospital workers cleaned the room and closed it as a precaution. Then, in March, the bacteria were found in a third patient from the same floor, prompting local, state and federal agencies to investigate the source of the bacteria.

Legionnaires’ disease is so named because hundreds of American Legionnaires fell ill with a flu-like disease at a convention in Philadelphia in July 1976. More than 30 died. Epidemiologists finally identified the hotel’s air-conditioning system as the source of the bacteria. More recently, an outbreak traced to a hot tub at the Playboy mansion in Los Angeles sickened more than 70 people.

Each year as many as 18,000 Americans are hospitalized with Legionnaires’ disease. The disease can be serious, especially for smokers and those with lung disease or weakened immune systems. The CDC reports that it can kill in 5 to 30 percent of all cases. Legionella bacteria are not spread from one person to another; they spread via warm water, mist or vapor.

The disease can be treated with antibiotics.

Sacred Heart epidemiologist said the bacteria in all three infected patients appeared similar, but further testing would be needed to link the bacteria from the hospital water system to the patients.

The hospital has since run more tests for the legionella bacteria and has not found more cases.

Couture said she anticipates replacing much of the hospital’s hot water system – an expense that could reach at least $500,000.

“Safety has to be the priority,” she said.

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