Hospital works to stop spread of Legionnaires'


Officials at St. Peter's University Hospital confirmed yesterday eight patients who contracted Legionnaires' disease were confined to the oncology unit in the D wing between Aug. 19 and Sept. 16. Last week, the Star Ledger reported two of those patients have died.

"The patients were confined to an isolated area of the hospital," said Michelle Lazzarotti, the director of Marketing and Media Relations at St. Peter's.

While officials are still investigating how patients contracted the disease, Lazzarotti said the University Hospital worked with the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services and the Middlesex County Public Health Department to remediate the problem.

"The hospital has been taking the necessary steps to further investigate any potential illnesses related to the situation," said John Dowd, an epidemiologist with Middlesex County Public Health Department.

Dowd said his inspection staff met with the St. Peter's facilities and engineering management to monitor corrective actions, and the department's epidemiology division assisted with ongoing surveillance to identify any other potential cases.

"There was a period we are looking into where the chlorine levels appear to have been decreased," Lazzarotti said.

Because of this, Lazzarotti said the departments shut off the hospital's water supply after learning of the outbreak. During that time, the hospital upped its chlorine levels in the water system from .3 parts chlorine per million to between 20 and 30 parts per million to kill any trace of the legionella bacteria, which causes Legionnaires' disease.

Now that water is running again, chlorine levels are being kept at .7 parts per million, which Lazzarotti said would continue to kill the bacteria.

Hospital buildings have complex water systems, and many people in hospitals already have illnesses that increase their risk for Legionella infection, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Web site.

Legionnaires' disease is particularly difficult to diagnose at first because symptoms usually present themselves like many other forms of pneumonia, according to the CDC Web site. Symptoms may include a high fever, chills and a cough. Some people may also suffer from muscle aches and headaches. These symptoms usually begin two to 14 days after being exposed to the bacteria.

"It's a good thing its not flu season, because a lot more people would come in thinking they have Legionnaires. It's easier to tell [during flu off-season] who has Legionnaires," said a hospital employee who wished to remain anonymous for reasons of job security.

Legionnaires' disease can be very serious and can cause death in up to 5 percent to 30 percent of cases. But most cases can be treated successfully with antibiotics, and healthy people usually recover from infection, according to the CDC Web site.

Those who contract the disease usually breathe in a mist or vapor that has been contaminated with the bacteria. The bacteria are not spread from one person to another person, according to the CDC Web site.

Most people exposed to the bacteria do not become ill, according to the CDC Web site. People most at risk of getting sick from the bacteria are older people, as well as people who are smokers, those who have a chronic lung disease and people who have weak immune systems from diseases like cancer, diabetes or kidney diseases.

Lazzarotti said the hospital took a proactive approach in notifying its patients, both those within the hospital and those patients who had been discharged from the hospital after Aug. 20, its physicians and employees.

She said the hospital sent letters to approximately 1,800 patients who had been discharged from Saint Peter's after Aug. 20 notifying them of the outbreak, precautions the hospital took after their notification of the outbreak and what symptoms to look for.

The anonymous source said the hospital also took precautions to keep employees safe.

The source said the hospital provided bottled water to those patient care areas where water service had been interrupted.

"We are concerned about the welfare and safety of all hospital patients, staff and visitors, and therefore will continue to work with all parties involved until this serious issue is resolved," David A. Papi, the director and health officer at the Middlesex County Health Department, said in a news release.

The source said it seems the hospital took every precaution necessary to make the hospital safe.

The source received an e-mail on Monday saying the water is now safe, and the hospital is up to code.

"That made me feel safer in terms of my own personal health," the source said.


Rachel Gillett

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