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Epidemiologist: Reality of Legionella is it's everywhere; work required to prevent disease

David Davenport, the medical director of infection, prevention and control services at Ascension Borgess Hospital, said Legionella is present in the environment, and cleaning and maintenance is the best way to prevent infection. (WWMT)

Legionella is found everywhere.

That’s the word from Dr. David Davenport, the medical director of infection, prevention and control services at Ascension Borgess Hospital.

Davenport declined to speak specifically about the cases in Hastings, where the bacteria was found in the hospital water supply. However, he outlined the ways Legionnella can reach and infect patients.

“Anywhere there are large reservoirs of water, we’ll find Legionella,” Davenport said. “A lot of bacteria that we’re concerned about like water and live in water.”

That includes man-made reservoirs.

“Water cooling towers, air conditioning units, hot tubs, pools, anything like that,” Davenport said, “and then complex water systems in large institutions like hospitals, hotels, and the like, are always at risk for Legionella.”

Davenport said Legionella likes warm weather. The unseasonably warm weather West Michigan has experienced this season could be a factor in how much Legionella is in our area, he said, but that’s difficult to say with certainty.

As of June 2017, Davenport said, hospitals across the country are mandated to develop a water management program that includes testing water systems for Legionella, and treating that system should they discover the bacteria.

“Appropriate testing in specific circumstances, appropriate risk assessment, where they go through appropriate investigation of all plumbing, the aerators, the shower heads, water temperatures, what type of method you’re using to try to kill Legionella, all these things,” Davenport said, are covered in the mandate issued by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Those practices are now required for hospitals to receive accreditation.

Answering how the bacteria can come in contact with patients is a matter of routine cleaning and maintenance, Davenport said. Again, he said, he’s not talking specifically about Spectrum Health Pennock in Hastings, but speaking in general terms

Davenport said believing that we can totally eradicate Legionella from water supplies is unrealistic. The goal should be to reduce the risk to as close to zero as possible.

Routine cleaning and maintenance of large water systems are key to preventing patients from falling ill, he said.

Legionella also can live in the slime layers of bio-films, so changing aerators and shower heads are a way hospitals can get rid of Legionella. Davenport said there are also special filters that more and more hospitals are purchasing and installing, but those filters are expensive.

When tests show Legionella in a water system, Davenport said, there are several ways to treat the water. Hospitals can shock treat the water, by making the water very hot. Another way is using copper-silver ionization, which Davenport said is a disinfection process mainly used for Legionnaires’ disease.

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