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Water restrictions instituted after two patients contracted Legionnaires’ disease at a Brooklyn hospital still are being enforced months later, and there does not appear to be an end in sight, patients told Patch.com.
Soon after the illnesses were revealed during the final two months of last year, tests showed Legionella bacteria in the water system at Park Slope’s New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. Hospital officials subsequently required the use of body wipes by patients instead of showers, and bottled water for drinking was supplied to patients, staff, and visitors.
Routine water safety testing at the hospital in December returned positive results for the bacteria in specific inpatient units, and the New York State Department of Health (NYSDH) was enlisted to assist with the investigation of the legionellosis, which is the collective term for diseases caused by Legionella.
The two cases of Legionnaires’ disease still are being investigated by state health officials, although no additional information regarding the patients was released.
Large buildings problematic
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Legionella are found naturally in freshwater environments, such as lakes and streams. The bacteria can become a health concern when they grow and spread in human-made water systems, including:
- large water and plumbing systems, like those in hospitals
- hot water tanks and heaters
- showerheads and sink faucets
- hot tubs that aren’t drained after each use
- cooling towers (structures that contain water and a fan as part of centralized air cooling systems for building or industrial processes
- decorative fountains and similar water features.
“The water supply of many large buildings and hospitals often contains small amounts of Legionella bacteria, and most people who are exposed to Legionella will not become ill,” a hospital spokesperson said in December. “If Legionella does cause an infection, it is treatable with antibiotics and does not generally pose a threat to the public.”
Patients are understandably frustrated by the restrictions.
“No brushing teeth, washing face, or showering — even hand washing is discouraged,” Rebecca Lentjes, an inpatient being treated for migraines, told Patch.com. “It’s frustrating because … once I finally got moved from the ER upstairs to a bed, all I wanted to do was wash up — but then I found out I wouldn’t be able to.”
She said she tried to wash her hair with bottled water but found it too difficult with an IV attached to her arm.
A hospital spokesperson told Patch.com that the hospital has “taken steps to disinfect” the water, reiterating the statement officials made in December when they said, “We work with the state and city departments of health to maintain a clean water supply and have already taken steps to disinfect our water sources.”
Hospital officials, however, did not respond to Patch.com’s more specific questions about hygiene concerns, or how long resolving the issue will take.
The water restrictions can be lifted once more testing is completed after “remediation of the water system,” NYSDH spokesperson Jill Montag said.
New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital is not the only hospital in Brooklyn dealing with Legionella. SUNY Downstate’s University Hospital of Brooklyn, which is less than three miles away, was found to have elevated levels of Legionella in late January. Remediation efforts and water restrictions also were enacted.
Legionnaires’ disease – also called Legionella pneumonia – is a severe type of pneumonia or lung infection caused by Legionella infection. The pathogen is contracted by inhaling microscopic water droplets, usually in the form of mist or vapor, which is why the hospital is restricting the use of showers and sinks. The disease is treatable with antibiotics, although if it is not diagnosed early, it can lead to severe complications and even can become deadly.
A 2015 study by the CDC stated that “75 percent of (Legionnaires’ disease) acquired in health-care settings could be prevented with better water management.”
Most people exposed to Legionella do not get sick, but people 50 years old and older – especially those who smoke or have chronic lung conditions – are at a higher risk. Other people more susceptible to infection include:
- anyone with a compromised immune system
- recipients of organ transplants
- individuals who are on specific drug protocols (corticosteroids, to name one)
- heavy drinkers of alcoholic beverages.
About 25,000 annual cases
According to the CDC, an estimated 25,000 cases of pneumonia due to Legionella bacteria (scientific name: Legionella pneumophila) occur in the United States every year. However, only 5,000 cases are reported because of the disease’s nonspecific signs and symptoms.
Legionnaires’ disease symptoms are similar to those of other types of pneumonia, and they can even resemble those of influenza (flu):