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Bacteria that causes Legionnaires' detected in Northport VA faucets 

The Northport VA Medical Center campus.

The Northport VA Medical Center campus.   Credit: Johnny Milano

The bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease has been detected in two faucets at the Northport VA Medical Center, but no patients or staff members have tested positive for the potentially fatal lung infection or shown symptoms of the illness, a hospital official said. 

Legionella pneumophila was discovered Sept. 10 as part of the medical center’s routine quarterly water-quality testing process, said spokesman Levi Spellman. 

The faucets are in the inpatient psychiatry unit; water samples from 240 locations across the 268-acre campus were tested, he said.

Legionnaires’ disease, a serious type of pneumonia, is contracted by breathing in small droplets of water in the air that contain the bacteriaAt highest risk: smokers, those over 50 and those with underlying health problems or compromised immune systems, medical experts said.

"Northport has a standing policy requiring all pneumonia cases to be tested for Legionella," Spellman said. “No patients or employees at Northport have tested positive for Legionnaires’ disease, or shown any symptoms consistent with the condition. According to medical industry standards, this occurrence does not constitute a risk to patients or employees."

Long Island’s only VA hospital treats more than 30,000 patients a year at the Northport complex and a string of satellite clinics that stretch from Valley Stream to Riverhead. The medical center's staff totals about 1,800 employees.

Hospital leaders moved quickly to address the contamination, Spellman said. The steps taken, he said:

• Water to the two faucets was immediately shut off and patients were directed to use other faucets and given bottled water.   

• The faucets where the bacteria was found were thoroughly flushed out before being turned back on.

• Patients and employees who might have used the faucets were told about the test findings and educated about the symptoms of Legionnaires' disease. Signs about the bacteria's presence also were posted in the inpatient psychiatry unit.

"We have a robust prevention team that is prepared to remediate when necessary and protect both staff and patients," Spellman said. "All appropriate personnel were notified, initiating the remediation process, which is ongoing." 

A handful of workers complained to Newsday that hospital leaders should have notified all staff members about the testing results, not only the employees in the inpatient psychiatry unit. The medical center, they said, should have sent a campuswide notification and posted signs in other buildings.

The staff members, who asked not to be identified because they fear retaliation, also said they worry about the bacteria spreading and still don't know what steps are being taking to protect the water. 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called the positive test "deeply concerning" and demanded the hospital act faster to prevent any spreading of the bacteria.

"The bottom-line is that the VA cannot and must not take their eye off this situation," Schumer said. "I’m urging all levels of the VA administration to work with Northport — day and night — to eradicate the bacteria as soon as possible."

Positive test results for Legionella pneumophila, which grows in drinking-water systems, are common at hospitals, Spellman said.

Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious diseases for the Northwell Health system, agrees trace amounts of the bacteria often can be found in public water systems, including private homes.

Healthy individuals may be exposed to the bacteria without feeling ill, although the risk is greater for vulnerable populations, such as hospital patients, he said.

"It's not uncommon for it to enter the water supply," Farber said. "It is not a huge public health risk."

Hospitals rarely mass-test all patients and staff when the bacteria is discovered in the water, Farber said. 

Last year, a team of infectious disease experts released the findings of a two-year study of Legionnaires' disease across the VA health care system.

The researchers found nearly 500 reported cases and determined roughly 90% of the veterans had been exposed to the illness out in the community — not in a VA hospital or clinic, according to the study published in JAMA Network Open, an online medical journal. 

The 92-year-old Northport hospital's infrastructure has faced scrutiny in the past several years.

Last year, Schumer called on Congress to fast track $15 million in public funds to replace the center's failing heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems after a broken air conditioner forced hospital leaders to suspend surgeries for almost a week.

A total of $7.5 million in campuswide HVAC repairs are underway or planned in the coming years, Schumer's office said.

With Kristina Rebelo

Symptoms of Legionnaires' disease usually begin two to 10 days after being exposed to the bacteria but can take up to two weeks to appear. Signs of the illness:

• Cough

• Shortness of breath

• Fever

• Muscle aches

• Headaches

• Diarrhea

• Nausea

• Confusion

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention