Microscope view of a Legionnaire's Disease lung infection. <a href="https://flickr.com/photos/pulmonary_pathology/3785990105/in/photolist-6LybXt-2esT3HK-25fgM1p-y7HBnU-z2ryqs-y7HJnq-z2rBRA-yM9yPU-yMesHB-z77Uir-2hapyry-fDFM2N-fGpY8p"><i>Yale Rosen/Flickr</i></a>

Microscope view of a Legionnaire's Disease lung infection. Yale Rosen/Flickr

Nearly a month after dangerous bacteria were first detected in the plumbing system, D.C.’s only public psychiatric hospital still does not have safe running water.

St. Elizabeths’ water supply tested positive for pseudomonas and legionella bacteria on September 26. The former bacteria can cause a variety of infections in those with compromised immune systems, and the latter is the source of waterborne Legionnaire’s Disease.

District officials said as recently as October 8th that contractors were working to replace the hospital’s faucets and chlorinate the water line, but the legionella bacteria have reportedly survived the sterilization efforts, leaving the hospital reliant on bottled water and portable showers. St. Elizabeths currently treats almost 300 patients and is continuing to admit new patients.

Natalie Delgadillo of DCist will join us for an update on the bacterial issues at St. Elizabeths – and what local activists want to see the Mayor’s office do next.

Produced by Maura Currie



  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tune in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show from WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll discuss how allegations of abuse affect the outcome of custody battles and where the concept of parental alienation comes in to play. But first, the only public psychiatric hospital in D.C. has gone nearly a month without a safe water supply.

  • 12:00:22

    KOJO NNAMDIIn late September two types of dangerous bacteria were detected in the plumbing system at St. Elizabeth's forcing the hospital's almost 300 patients and 700 employees to rely on bottled water and portable showers. Hospital and district officials said a fix would come early last week, but now they say the bacteria has survived their attempts to get rid of it. For more we're joined by Natalie Delgadillo. She's a staff writer with DCist. Natalie, always a pleasure.

  • 12:00:49

    NATALIE DELGADILLONice to be here. Thanks, Kojo.

  • 12:00:50

    NNAMDIOf course this is not such a pleasurable experience we are discussing today. So let's start with a broad update. What exactly is in the water at St. Elizabeth's?

  • 12:00:58

    DELGADILLOSo on September 26, during a routine water test, the city discovered that there were two strains of potentially harmful bacteria in the water at St. Elizabeth's. One of those is the legionella bacteria, which as the name suggests causes Legionnaires' Disease. And the other is pseudomonas, which is particularly dangerous for people with compromised immune systems.

  • 12:01:19

    NNAMDIWasn't this supposed to have been fixed weeks ago?

  • 12:01:22

    DELGADILLOThe official line was that it would be fixed by October 11, I believe was when they were supposed to be finished with the remediation, and then there would be a couple days of testing to make sure that that remediation had taken. But late last week we learned that in fact it wasn't successful. The tests that they were running revealed that there was still legionella bacteria in the water despite the fact that they had replaced every single one of St. Elizabeth's 900 faucets and they had chlorinated the waterline.

  • 12:01:51

    NNAMDISo what has the hospital's solution been in the interim?

  • 12:01:55

    DELGADILLOEssentially as you mentioned in the opening they've been using bottled water. There are portable showers outdoors where patients and staff can take showers. They're drinking and cooking bottled water. And they have hand sanitizer available. And I believe wipes for people to wipe themselves down if they don't want to use the showers outside.

  • 12:02:17

    NNAMDIHave there been any reports of patients getting sick? Is St. Elizabeth's still admitting patients?

  • 12:02:22

    DELGADILLONo reports yet. According to the city there have been no cases of sickness resulting from the water. And according to what I heard from the city yesterday they are still admitting and discharging patients.

  • 12:02:34

    NNAMDIBecause St. Elizabeth's is a public hospital, remind us what role the District government plays in managing the hospital.

  • 12:02:42

    DELGADILLOThe District is totally responsible for managing the hospital. It falls under the Department of Behavioral Health -- the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health. That's part of the reason why activists are calling for Mayor Bowser to step in.

  • 12:02:53

    NNAMDIHow about the responsibility of the D.C. Council?

  • 12:02:55

    DELGADILLOSo the D.C. Council is also partially responsible for it in that it performs oversight over St. Elizabeth's. Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray is the Chairperson of the Committee on Health. And so he has been involved in this to some extent. I know he's visited St. Elizabeth's and he released a statement about the failed test last week.

  • 12:03:17

    NNAMDIAnd his staff contacted us today to remind us that he's having a hearing on November 20 that in addition to other issues of the hospital will also examine the issue of water contamination at St. Elizabeth's Hospital and the agency's short and long term response. So that will take place on November 20. You reached out to the D.C. Department of Health yesterday and they told you that they are in the process of retesting the water. Did they have a plan for dealing with this if the test continued to come back positive? Are they considering moving patients to a different location?

  • 12:03:52

    DELGADILLOYeah, so the city rechlorinated the water over the weekend and is in the process of testing it again. But that's a day's long process. They are hoping that the tests are going to come back clean by the end of the week and that they'll be able to turn the water back on at the end of the week. I didn't receive an answer to my questions regarding what happens if the tests come back positive again. And they also did not say whether they are going to consider moving people offsite.

  • 12:04:19

    NNAMDIThis is a mystery inside of an enigma. They cleansed the water. They changed the pipes and there still is bacteria. A number of advocacy groups, however, and officials are pushing back on how the city is handled this. What would they like to see St. Elizabeth's do differently?

  • 12:04:34

    DELGADILLOSo the ACLU of D.C. and Disability Rights D.C. in particular both of whom have advocated on behalf of St. Elizabeth's patients before are pushing hard for Mayor Bowser to stop admitting new patients to St. Elizabeth's and to transfer at least some of the patients who are currently at St. Elizabeth's to other facilities. Particularly Disability Rights D.C., one of the folks that I spoke to there said she would like to see folks in the geriatric unit moved in particular. The ACLU is also pushing for the Council to do more thorough oversight and have a public hearing on the source of the contamination and sort of what emergency protocols should be in a situation like this more generally.

  • 12:05:15

    NNAMDIWhere there any suggestions as to the alternative if the hospital decided for the time being to stop admitting patients?

  • 12:05:22


  • 12:05:23

    NNAMDISt. Elizabeth's, however, is no stranger to safety controversies. Put this in some kind of context for us.

  • 12:05:29

    DELGADILLOYeah. So St. Elizabeth's has a sort of troubled 164 year history. In fact in 1965 there was a legionella outbreak at the hospital that was known at the time as St. Elizabeth's fever. In 2016, a main pipe burst and contaminated water causing a shutoff for five to six days. And there have also been larger issues that prompted it to be under Federal control for seven years, from 2007 to 2014. Assaults of staff, of patients so it's, you know, had its issues over the years.

  • 12:06:05

    NNAMDIClearly a lot of the activists would like to see Mayor Bowser pay closer personal attention to this issue. Any indication that that might happen?

  • 12:06:14

    DELGADILLOWell, based on what I heard yesterday, you know, they're not saying much about whether that's going to happen. They're basically saying, we're fixing the problem and things are things are staying as they are for now.

  • 12:06:26

    NNAMDIWe got a tweet from the Treatment Advocacy Center saying, D.C. needs to stop eliminating public psychiatric beds and restore quality care in D.C. That obviously opinion and I'm sure there are a lot more that will be heard until this water crisis at St. Elizabeth's is dealt with. Natalie Delgadillo is a staff writer with DCist. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:06:49

    DELGADILLOThanks, Kojo.

  • 12:06:50

    NNAMDIGoing to take a short break, when we come back we'll discuss how allegations of abuse effect the outcome of custody battles, and where this concept of parental alienation comes into play. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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