A Florida Department of Health investigation is now underway after Florida Hospital Orlando’s water tested positive for Legionella bacteria. The incident began when a Florida Hospital patient tested positive for Legionnaire’s disease in December. The FHD then tested the water at the hospital’s Ginsburg Tower and it came back positive for the bacteria.

Bill Ruffier, a partner at Dellecker Wilson King McKenna Ruffier & Sos, who has experience with Legionella cases, comments, “It’s interesting that the testing was prompted by the patient’s sickness. What our hospitals should be doing is conducting tests frequently enough that such incidents are avoided.”

Legionnaire’s has been in the news lately after 87 people in Flint, Michigan, contracted the disease, and nine of them died in 2014 and 2015 during the Flint water crisis.

What is Legionnaire’s disease?

The Legionella bacteria is found in fresh water. It thrives in warm water, like the water in hot tubs, large plumbing systems, or the air conditioning systems of large buildings. If the mist or vapor of Legionella-contaminated water is breathed in, it can infect the lungs and cause flu-like symptoms. This is typically called Pontiac fever. If the bacteria causes pneumonia, it’s called Legionnaires’ disease. The disease is not transmitted from person to person and it doesn’t sicken the majority of people who are exposed to it, but those with compromised immune systems, like hospital patients, are more vulnerable.

Why did this happen at Florida Hospital?

In Flint, residents are connecting the outbreak of Legionnaire’s with their contaminated water supply. Here in Orlando, we’re still waiting on definitive results to show whether the hospital’s cooling system caused their patient to get sick, but Ruffier has seen a decline in overall safety standards at our local hospitals over the past ten years.

“We’ve seen a decrease in hospital safety due to a change in our healthcare system. There’s now a much greater emphasis on building hospital empires and less emphasis on patient safety and nurse training. We’re seeing cases related to this change all the time,” he explains.

“Our two major hospital systems, Florida Hospital and Orlando Health, are engaged in a major battle to dominate healthcare. Small medical groups are bought up, doctors become employees of the hospitals, giving them less autonomy to make good decisions for their patients. Insurance companies benefit because the fewer providers they have to engage, the more they can control payouts and the fewer checks they have to write.”

Ruffier has also observed that experienced, higher paid nurses are being replaced by young nurses and even nurses with English as a second language, some of whom have difficulty reading doctor’s notes on patient charts. “Practices like these have been going on for at least ten years but has picked up in the last five, and are causing mistakes to be made that compromise patient safety,” he says.

Ruffier had a case in several years ago where a family used the hot tub at a Marriot and several of them contracted Legionnaire’s. The father passed away, and his children survived. The father’s autopsy showed he had Legionnaire’s and testing concluded that the same bacteria existed in the hot tub. The case was settled in mediation.

At Dellecker Wilson King McKenna Ruffier & Sos, we advise the community to be aware of the environments they spend time in. If you live in a high rise, inquire with management about the frequency of bacteria testing in the building’s plumbing and air conditioning systems. Before using a hotel or spa hot tub, don’t be afraid to ask when the water systems were last tested. When admitted to a hospital, get educated about the safety practices and testing standards that can make a life-or-death difference.

WERWilliam Ruffier is a partner at Dellecker Wilson King McKenna Ruffier & Sos.