Security guards patrol the sidewalk in front of a Veterans Affairs hospital in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. Federal health officials now say five people may have died from Legionnaires' disease at local Veterans Affairs hospitals over the last two years. (Keith Srakocic / AP)
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PITTSBURGH — A veteran who died last month after being treated for pneumonia in a Veterans Affairs hospital in western Pennsylvania was confirmed to have the Legionella bacteria, but officials say it isn't clear whether he contracted it in the hospital system where an earlier outbreak linked to the water supply killed five patients.
The VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System said in a statement Friday that the patient died in late January, and two preliminary tests taken while he was at the hospital had shown no sign of the infection. But spokesman David Cowgill said Friday that officials had just received test results confirming the presence of the Legionella bacteria, which causes the Legionnaires' form of pneumonia.
"The source of the veteran's infection remains unknown," the statement said.
Additional testing by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will assist in determining whether the case was "hospital- or community-acquired." Test results are not expected for several weeks.
Legionnaires' cases treated at the Pittsburgh-area VA hospitals have included illnesses that began in the federal hospital system and elsewhere. Cowgill said samples from areas where the veteran was seen tested negative for the bacteria.
Legionnaires' disease most often strikes the elderly and can cause deadly pneumonia. It's caused by bacteria that can be spread through mist or vapor from contaminated water or air conditioning systems.
The VA announced the outbreak Nov. 16 and switched its water treatment systems at two hospitals in Pittsburgh. A report last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the VA hospital lab in Pittsburgh didn't report positive test results for Legionnaires for more than two days in violation of hospital protocols. Five patients who were infected at Pittsburgh's Veterans Affairs hospitals died while others were successfully treated.
The report said extensive construction work may have contributed to the outbreak and suggested that water treatment equipment wasn't effectively killing the Legionella bacteria.
Cowgill said Friday that workers conduct environmental sampling of hospital water every two weeks and have found that the cleaning efforts were successful.