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St. Elizabeths Hospital without drinking water after legionella bacteria found

St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington. (Evy Mages/For The Washington Post)

St. Elizabeths Hospital has been without potable water for a week, officials said Thursday, forcing staff and patients to use bottled water and hand sanitizer after bacteria that can cause Legionnaires’ disease was discovered in the water system.

Phyllis Jones, chief of staff of the District’s Department of Behavioral Health, said officials received results from routine water testing on Sept. 26 that showed legionella bacteria, which can cause Legionnaires’ disease, and pseudomonas bacteria, which can cause severe infections in people with weakened immune systems.

No staff or patients have become sick, officials said, but the hospital is using bottled water for drinking, cooking and hand-washing, and portable showers for washing. Toilets and laundry machines are still available.

The city-owned psychiatric hospital in Southeast Washington, which has 273 patients and 700 employees, continues to admit patients. The water problems were first reported by the Washington City Paper.

“Bottled water is used for cleaning cooking utensils and the temperature of the dishwashers is hot enough to kill bacteria,” Jones said in a statement. “As with any water outage, infectious disease control staff are monitoring closely to address any potential infection risks.”

More than 6,000 cases of the pneumonia-like Legionnaires’ disease were reported in the United States in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said the illness is fatal in about 10 percent of cases when people become sick.

“Legionella occurs naturally in freshwater environments, like lakes and streams,” according to the CDC. “It can become a health concern when it grows and spreads in human-made building water systems.”

A new book recounts the history of St. Elizabeths, the District’s mental hospital

Jones said portable showers, bottled water and hand wipes are “readily available and being used by patients and staff to wash their hands.”

Andrea Procaccino, a staff attorney at Disability Rights DC, which advocates for patients at St. Elizabeths, said the lack of potable water is a difficult situation for patients and staff.

“It’s a terrible problem,” she said. “The staff and patients are very upset. . . . If you’re not able to wash your hands after you go to the bathroom or there’s no running water, it makes it hard to have proper hygiene and sanitation.”

Procaccino said patients are “very distressed,” especially with cold and flu season approaching. She said staff and patients are also worried because hospital management hasn’t communicated how long it might take to resolve the problem.

“People haven’t taken showers in four or five days,” Procaccino said.

Since the bacteria was found, Procaccino said she has contacted hospital management, the D.C. Council and the city health department, but hasn’t gotten responses. Jones said hospital officials are receiving daily updates and don’t know when the water will be safe to drink.

Jones said the hospital hasn’t experienced similar water problems in the past, although a broken water main pipe disrupted the flow of water to part of the facility about three years ago.

St. Elizabeths, the nation’s first federally funded mental hospital, was founded in 1855. Many of its patients are criminal defendants, including those awaiting competency hearings and found not guilty by reason of insanity, including John Hinckley, the would-be assassin of President Ronald Reagan, who was released in 2016.

The hospital, which has lost part of its campus to the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies in recent years, has a troubled history. Patients sued the facility over conditions in 1974, when it housed more than 3,600 people, in a case that the District settled in 2012.

In 2006, the Justice Department found conditions at the hospital violated patients’ constitutional rights, and the District entered into a consent decree in 2007. That decree ended in 2014 after the department found conditions had improved.

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