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Legionnaires’ Disease and the Importance of Nursing Home Plumbing Maintenance

Chris Murray
Posted on: July 10, 2019 by Chris Murray

Most people understand some of the many challenges facing the nursing home industry as it delivers care to senior residents. Healthcare has become more complex in recent years, and nursing home staff members are often being asked to do more with less – less staff, fewer resources, and less time. These facilities owe their residents a clean, safe, and caring environment. Unfortunately, an often-overlooked aspect of nursing home operations is that of maintenance. In addition to implementing nursing home insurance as a foundational risk management plan, long term care facilities must address any shortfalls in facility maintenance, particularly when it comes to plumbing and heating/ventilation/cooling issues. The consequences of neglecting this critical part of operations can be devastating, severely threatening the lives and safety of residents and staff alike.

Legionnaires’ Disease: A Growing Concern in Nursing Homes

Building infrastructure is the lifeblood of any business operation. In nursing homes, building infrastructure components such as plumbing and heating or air-conditioning systems (heating, ventilation, and cooling, or HVAC) are necessary for the health and safety of residents. When neglected, or if problems with these systems arise, a serious and potentially fatal disease can take hold. This threat is known as Legionnaires’ disease.

Legionnaires’ disease is a severe form of pneumonia caused by the legionella bacteria. Unlike other bacterial pneumonias, Legionnaires’ disease is not spread by human-to-human contact, but rather by inhaling contaminated air infected by the bacteria. Legionella bacteria thrive in moist environments, such as in plumbing pipes and fixtures and in HVAC cooling towers. In nursing homes with complex plumbing and HVAC systems, the threat of a disease outbreak looms over every operation, especially in facilities where routine disinfection of these systems is not conducted. 

Seniors are at particular risk from Legionnaires’ disease; those with certain underlying medical conditions or weakened immune system are also susceptible to contracting the disease. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in every 10 people who get Legionnaires’ disease will die from the infection. 

Combatting the Threat of Legionnaires’ Disease

In an analysis of cases of Legionnaires’ that occurred in 2015, about 550 of the cases happened in a healthcare facility, including nursing homes. Of those cases, nearly 70 patients died from the disease that year. On average, Legionnaires’ kills about 10% of affected patients nationwide. The CDC describes the disease as preventable; nursing homes and other healthcare facilities need to take certain steps to curtail the outbreak and spread of this potentially deadly disease. 

It is important for nursing home owners and managers to understand that nursing home insurance is only one part of a comprehensive risk management protocol. Preventing legionella bacteria from growing in the first place is the key to successful disease control. In certain facilities that serve patients or residents with weakened immune systems, anti-backflush devices should be installed on plumbing fixtures to prevent disease-causing bacteria from entering the plumbing system. Purified or deionized water systems may also be beneficial; these systems help to reduce or eliminate the potential for harmful disease pathogens in water delivery. Regular disinfection of plumbing systems and drainage tubing and equipment used in HVAC cooling towers is a great way to kill bacteria; in some jurisdictions, minimum disinfection standards are in place to protect water safety. 

Facility managers must also implement routine safety checks of plumbing and HVAC systems, both to comply with regulatory requirements as well as to ensure the safety of patients and staff. Routine water testing, inspection of equipment and facilities, and air-monitoring processes should be part of the safety plan the nursing home implements. 

Finally, nursing home owners and managers must be sure that their nursing home insurance is up to date. This valuable insurance protection provides coverage against numerous risks, including legal expenses that may arise from a resident or his/her family members suing after contracting a preventable disease such as Legionnaires’. With the right insurance and with a proactive approach to stopping the spread of disease, nursing homes and long-term care facilities can continue to provide compassionate and safe care to those who may need it most. 

About Caitlin Morgan

Caitlin Morgan specializes in insuring assisted living facilities and nursing homes and can assist you in providing insurance and risk management services for this niche market. Give us a call to learn more about our programs at 877.226.1027.

Posted in: blog Nursing Home