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Hospital Secretly Tests Water at 2 Sites

Health: Legionnaires' outbreak prompts Good Samaritan to examine county, Times buildings.

July 24, 2002|CHARLES ORNSTEIN and EVELYN LARRUBIA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Good Samaritan Hospital, upset by publicity about a Legionnaires' disease outbreak at its facility, secretly tested water from the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles County administration buildings and reportedly found Legionella pneumophila bacteria.

The county Department of Health Services, which received notification Monday of the unsolicited tests, said the public and visitors to both buildings have nothing to worry about because Legionella is common in water supplies and its presence does not necessarily increase the risk of contracting the respiratory disease.

"This information is not surprising or cause for alarm," Dr. Thomas Garthwaite, health services director, wrote to county supervisors. He added that no further testing or decontamination is required at either building.

County supervisors, however, ordered tests at their building, county hospitals and The Times. They also criticized Good Samaritan for the water testing. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky dubbed it a public relations "stunt."

"I don't think they've proven a damn thing other than their own stupidity," Yaroslavsky said.

Supervisor Gloria Molina said the hospital's action was an example "of someone who was still trying to put the blame on someone."

Between January and June, nine patients became ill with Legionnaires' acquired at Good Samaritan. Two of those later died, but hospital officials say the deaths were unrelated to Legionnaires'.

Earlier this month, the hospital and county health officials were faulted by county supervisors for failing to disclose the hospital outbreak to the public until The Times inquired about an anonymous tip.

Good Samaritan officials Tuesday said a hospital employee collected sink water samples from public restrooms at The Times' headquarters downtown and the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration on July 9 and sent them to a certified laboratory in Georgia.

The two sites were selected because "they are the work sites for people who were directly involved in this issue," according to a letter from hospital President and Chief Executive Andrew Leeka to county health officials.

"Clearly, we would like the public to understand this problem is not one unique to Good Samaritan hospital, and that we are working with you, along with others, to prevent the spread of disease from the bacteria," he wrote.

Leeka added that the hospital had suffered from "sensationalized media coverage," which left the impression that the hospital did not respond appropriately.

Good Samaritan spokeswoman Mari Bregman said the tests were not conducted for publicity. The health department, not the hospital, released the results.

The bacteria is so widespread, Leeka has said, that during the outbreak, the hospital also treated several people who acquired Legionnaires' in the community.

Dr. Jonathan Fielding, the county public health director, said there is a "big difference" between finding Legionella in the water and discovering an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease at a hospital.

"The fact that one finds it even in a hospital is not necessarily grounds to do major work," Fielding said. But when people become infected, experts recommend "aggressive measures to control the outbreak," he said.

Times spokeswoman Martha Goldstein said the newspaper is conducting its own evaluation and consulting with an infectious-disease specialist "to see if there's any danger to our employees or whether any action is merited."

She called the water test results uncorroborated and stressed that "the health and safety of our employees is our top priority."

Workers in the county building are receiving letters explaining the situation.

Legionnaires' disease affects 8,000 to 18,000 people per year and is fatal in 5% to 30% of cases.

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