Bacteria found in Virginia hospital worries this mother despite microbiologist's findings

Posted at 5:22 PM, Jun 10, 2024

DINWIDDIE COUNTY, Va. -- An infectious disease microbiologist who studies legionella said she believed the overall risk to residents and staff at the Hiram W. Davis Medical Center in Petersburg of contracting a serious type of pneumonia from legionella bacteria in the water there is low.

We showed Dr. Janet Stout water testing records CBS 6 obtained through a public records request that showed uncontrolled levels of legionella were repeatedly detected in the water in showers, sinks, and ice machines at the state-run facility in 2021, 2022, 2023 and, most recently, in March 2024.

Legionella bacteria can cause a serious type of pneumonia if people breathe in droplets of water containing the bacteria, or accidentally swallow contaminated water into their lungs.

Dr. Stout said that while the type of legionella most likely to cause pneumonia is present in many of the findings, she still thinks the overall risk to residents and staff is low.

“Whenever people hear legionella they remember these large outbreaks of legionnaires disease that happened in the Bronx or the original American Legion outbreak in 1976, and they think that's what is going to happen, and that's not what typically happens,” Stout said. “If there are cases of legionnaires disease they happen sporadically and infrequently, and so that should be some solace for people there.”

WATCH: Legionella found in water at a Virginia medical facility that handles vulnerable patients

Legionella found in water at Virginia medical facility that handles vulnerable patients

Dr. Stout’s words bring little solace to Martha Bryant.

Her son Taylor Bryant lives at Hiram Davis, a 94-bed medical facility run by the state that cares for people with serious medical needs.

Taylor, 30, has the cognition level of a nine to 15-month-old child. He was born 11 weeks early and has cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and a tracheostomy.

"Taylor is a precious child of God, and we chose life for him,” Martha Bryant said.

While Martha has never been thrilled with what she called the “antiquated model of care” at Hiram Davis, something she noticed in a facility Powerpoint presentation from 2023 amplified her concerns.

Martha and Taylor Bryant
Martha and Taylor Bryant

“Slide 18 said legionella mitigation,” Martha said. “When I'm seeing legionella mitigation I'm calling like is it in HVAC, is it blowing in the air conditioning, or is it in water?”

She reached out to CBS 6 with her concerns and questions, and we submitted a public records request.

That’s when we learned about the uncontrolled levels of legionella found in the water at the facility.

A spokesperson for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services told CBS 6 the bacteria is within the plumbing system, and the conditions within the aging pipes at the building caused the problem. The agency has been working with the water vendor, and the Virginia Department of Health to mitigate risk, and they have contracted with experts in legionella mitigation to develop a plan to manage the issue.

They have also stopped giving patients showers, and instead use bed baths.

THE DBHDS spokesperson said there has not been any broad-scale testing of patients and staff for disease caused by legionella because it has not been clinically warranted.

However, they did test three residents last September because they had symptoms that raised concerns. Each resident tested negative.

Dr. Stout said it was encouraging that Hiram Davis tested for legionella and has a water management plan, but she believed the facility should test more patients and staff when they get sick.

 Dr. Janet Stout
Dr. Janet Stout

“When there is pneumonia those patients should be evaluated for legionnaires disease, and it's a simple test on urine, so I think that needs to be done more vigilantly in order to assess whether or not this disease is occurring under the radar,” Stout said.

Martha Bryant remains uneasy and wonders if the situation can even be fixed in the hospital as it stands now.

“What is your sense of what would get rid of the legionella?” CBS 6 investigative reporter Melissa Hipolit asked. “A new building, a modern facility,” Martha replied.

Watch Melissa Hipolit's reporting on CBS 6 News and Have something for Melissa to investigate? Email her.

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