Quarterly water safety tests at the Jerry L. Pettis Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Loma Linda showed evidence of Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease. Officials responded by taking the water fountains out of service until the problem is resolved, according to news reports.

“This does not mean there is a Legionella outbreak,” Pettis Medical Center Public Affairs Officer Wade J. Habshey wrote in a statement.  “The facility has a zero-tolerance policy for Legionella.”

Water was shut off to all areas that tested positive, and V.A. officials say only one patient room was affected. No patients were exposed, and no illnesses have been reported.

Information was not made available regarding the length of time it will take to remove the Legionella or whether patients have been transferred to other rooms during mitigation efforts.

Employees at the facility told CBS Los Angeles that they weren’t told about the latest water tests, but they would not agree to be interviewed on camera. They said they didn’t know what, if any, long-term efforts were being taken to prevent future issues with the water system.

“Service chiefs are notifying staff members as appropriate” regarding the remediation, Habshey said.

Cover-up alleged

The Loma Linda facility made news in May when the Orange County Register reported that several employees had filed a federal whistleblower complaint in February against hospital officials alleging a cover-up of a Legionella outbreak.

That same month, hospital officials sought bids for Legionella remediation for the entire Loma Linda health-care system, which includes the V.A. hospital as well as clinics in Blythe, Corona, Palm Desert, Rancho Cucamonga, Murrieta, and Victorville.

The V.A. Loma Linda Healthcare System serves more than 76,000 veterans and has more than 2,400 employees and 1,300 volunteers. The Pettis Medical Center has 162 acute-care beds and a 108-bed community living center.

The yearlong Legionella remediation project is estimated to cost as much as $1 million, according to an online bid notice.

Legionnaires’ information

Legionnaires’ disease, which is also known as legionellosis and Legionella pneumonia, is similar to other types of pneumonia, an infection of the air sacs in one or both lungs that can produce fluid in the lungs. Legionnaires’ symptoms can resemble flu-like symptoms in the following forms:

  • coughing
  • difficulty breathing
  • high fever
  • muscle aches and pains
  • headaches
  • gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Who is most at risk?
Anyone can contract Legionnaires’ disease, but people most susceptible to infection include:

  • people 50 years of age or older
  • smokers, current and former
  • heavy drinkers of alcoholic beverages
  • people with chronic lung disease
  • people with compromised immune systems
  • recipients of organ transplants
  • individuals who are on specific drug protocols (corticosteroids, to name one).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 25,000 cases of pneumonia due to Legionella bacteria (Legionella pneumophila) occur each year, but only 5,000 cases are reported because of its nonspecific signs and symptoms. Ten percent of those who become infected with Legionnaires’ disease will die from the infection.

How does one become ill?
Legionella bacteria are contracted by inhaling microscopic water droplets, usually in the form of mist or vapor. The bacteria, which grow best in warm water, are found primarily in human-made environments.

Outbreaks have been linked to a number of sources, such as:

  • hot water tanks and heaters
  • showers and faucets
  • swimming pools
  • hot tubs and whirlpools
  • equipment used in physical therapy
  • mist machines and hand-held sprayers
  • the cooling towers of air conditioning systems
  • large plumbing systems
  • water systems such as those used in hospitals, nursing homes, and hotels
  • decorative fountains.

People also can contract Legionnaires’ disease when they “aspirate” contaminated drinking water – that is, choking or coughing while drinking can cause water to go down the wrong pipe into the lungs. That, however, is a sporadic occurrence.