UW Hospital takes measures after 4 cases of Legionnaires’ Disease

Published: Nov. 28, 2018 at 3:08 PM CST
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Three formerly hospitalized patients and one current patient have developed Legionnaires’ Disease (legionellosis), which is a type of pneumonia, at UW-Hospital.

Lisa Brunette, a spokesperson with the UW Health, said the hospital is taking measures to address a suspected risk associated with the hospital’s hot-water system.

On Wednesday afternoon, the hospital will implement a “hypercholoration” process to flush all hot-water lines in the building to eliminate any Legionella bacteria.

Brunette said the University Hospital uses a water treatment system designed to keep levels low, but a recent adjustment to that system may have compromised its function. Tests on some units within the hospital recently have shown elevated levels. Legionnaires’ is caused by bacteria that are typically present at low concentrations in tap water.

Dr. Nasia Safdar, Medical Director of Infection Control for UW Hospitals, says the bacteria prefers water of warmer temperatures.

"It likes to grow in this middle ground where it's not too hot and it's not too cold. That’s where we typically try to find it," Dr. Safdar says.

Brunette said when hospital officials learned that four patients had developed symptoms of the disease, the patients were tested. All four tested positive. Those tests were conducted in the past 10 days. One patient has been discharged from the hospital, and the other three remain hospitalized.

Dr. Safdar says those patients range in age from 45-80 and were experiencing other health-related issues before contracting Legionnaire's.

"There were I think a couple of instances where it exacerbated, so they might have recovered faster from their other conditions if they haven’t had Legionella," she says. "Obviously I don’t think there’s ever a situation where you would say it posed no additional risk to the patient, it’s an infection that they shouldn’t have had and it’s had it’s impact."

At this time no additional cases of Legioinnaires’ have been identified.

Brunette said the hospital is conducting tests to determine if the bacteria is related to the hospital water system. Officials stopped all use of hospital showers when the hospital became aware of the four patients with Legionnaires’. It’s expected to continue until sometime early Thursday.

The risk comes only from hot water in the form of airborne droplets, such as the water in a hot shower. Cold tap water doesn’t pose a risk.

Healthy patients who may inhale water droplets with the bacteria are at low risk. People over 50 and those with lung disease and/or compromised immune systems are at a higher risk.

There have been no cases of Legionella acquired at University Hospital in 23 years.

American Family Children’s Hospital is not affected.

The Wisconsin state Division of Public Health has also been notified.

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