Patient who died at Young VA had bacteria that causes Legionnaire's Disease

Published March 5, 2015

A pneumonia patient who died on Feb. 20 at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center tested positive for the strain of bacteria that causes Legionnaires' Disease. And hospital officials said they expect test results Friday to confirm whether the facility's water system was contaminated.

The Young VA did not identify the patient, 64, who died after a 10-day hospitalization.

Jason Dangel, a Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman at the hospital, said no other patient has tested positive for the bacteria, Legionella pneumophila, and no danger is posed to patients or staff.

"Most people who are exposed to the bacteria never become ill," Dangel said in a written statement.

The Young VA water system was last tested in December and was not contaminated with the bacteria at that time, Dangel said.

Dr. Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida and a specialist in infectious disease, said one case involving the Legionnaires' bacteria would be of little concern from a public health standpoint unless the hospital proved to be the source of the contamination.

Most people are exposed to strains of the bacteria in their lifetime and do not become ill, Morris said. He said exposure is actually fairly common outside of hospitals. Older men are particularly vulnerable if they have a pre-existing lung condition, particularly those who are heavy smokers, Morris said.

"Where it does get interesting is if he acquired it in the hospital," Morris said. "Then you pull out all the stops. If it's not at the hospital, then I'm not too excited."

Legionnaires' Disease is a type of pneumonia caused by a naturally occurring bacteria that grows best in warm water, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It is most commonly found in hot tubs, cooling towers or parts of air-conditioning systems in large buildings. People can become infected by breathing contaminated mist or vapor.

But the disease is not spread from person to person.

As a precaution, the Young VA has stopped the use of showers in its main hospital building until test results are in, according to Dangel. The hospital also has used a process called "hyper-chlorination" to clean the water system to ensure it is bacteria free. The water is safe to drink, the VA says.

The hospital on Feb. 27 sent out a notice to employees that a patient had tested positive for the bacteria, a week after the patient died and two days after the Tampa Bay Times first asked the VA about the case. Dangel said that notice went to nearly 4,000 employees and was not sent out in response to the newspaper's inquiry.

The notice to employees did not note the patient died. Dangel said the VA was prevented from including that information due to patient privacy restrictions.

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Dangel said Young VA medical staff were informed of the case the same day the patient died.

The VA is not saying the patient died of Legionnaire's Disease. In his statement, Dangel said only, "We can confirm the patient died die to medical complications." The Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, which received a report of the case from the VA, said the patient died of respiratory failure.

Dr. Janet Stout, president of the Special Pathogens Laboratory in Pittsburgh, said a pneumonia patient testing positive for the bacteria is understood by medical professionals to have Legionnaires' Disease.

The VA said the family of the patient requested an autopsy, which was performed by the VA.

Times staff writer Claire McNeill and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact William R. Levesque at or (813) 226-3432. Follow @Times_Levesque.