VA under fire after Legionnaires' cases

Twenty-nine patients at the V.A. hospital in Pittsburgh have been diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease since January 2011.
Twenty-nine patients at the V.A. hospital in Pittsburgh have been diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease since January 2011.
  • 29 cases of Legionnaires' disease have been diagnosed at Pittsburgh VA since January 2011
  • At least 5 of the cases were acquired from the hospital
  • Relatives of two veterans who died after contracting the disease blame the VA
  • Records indicate the hospital's water systems were not properly maintained

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- Twenty-nine patients at the Veterans Administration hospital in Pittsburgh have been diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease since January 2011, raising questions about the institution's safety practices.

Five of the cases "are known to have acquired the disease from the hospital," the VA said. Another eight were infected elsewhere, and the source of the infection in 16 cases cannot been determined.

The spate of illnesses has led relatives of two veterans who died after contracting the disease, a type of pneumonia, to blame the hospital.

CNN has learned that hospital officials knew they had a problem with the water system as far back as last December, but chose not to reveal that until a month ago.

That's when the hospital began turning off the water in parts of the hospital, staff and patients told CNN.

"They should have the best and utmost care than anybody else, even better than a normal civilian," said Dave Nicklas, whose father, Bill, died last month at age 87. According to his death certificate, he died of heart failure and Legionnaires' disease.

Nicklas entered the hospital last month for treatment of dehydration; the World War II Navy veteran initially appeared to be improving, but his condition reversed, his son said.

The man's doctors told the family shortly before he died that he had contracted Legionnaires'.

"I mean, they fought for their country, you know," Dave Nicklas said.

"They go to battle, they love their country and where do they go? They go to a hospital and they basically die in there."

Another Navy veteran -- John Ciarolla, 83, -- died July 18, 2011, after being diagnosed with Legionnaires' at the hospital, his daughter Maureen Ciarolla said.

Though the Korean War veteran had been living in the hospital for several months after he became unable to live on his own, the hospital said he could not have contracted the bacteria in the hospital.

When she questioned how that conclusion had been reached, she said she was told, "If he had gotten it here there would have been other cases."

"I felt guilty, very guilty, thinking he got it when I took him out the Sunday before Father's Day 2011," Maureen Ciarolla said.

The VA's problem extends beyond Pittsburgh. This week, it turned off the water in a building at its campus in Butler, Pennsylvania, 30 miles from the facility in Pittsburgh, said Amanda Kurtz, a spokeswoman for the facility.

The action was taken after Legionella bacteria were identified in a preliminary sample on Tuesday, she said in a statement. No cases of Legionnaires' have been identified in the Butler facility "as a result of this preliminary finding," she added.

The Veterans Administration would not say if any of the patients known to have been sick with Legionnaires' disease at the hospital in Pittsburgh had died, but it told the Allegheny County Health Department that one of them did, a health department spokesman said.

Legionnaires' disease, which is spread through water, is preventable and treatable.

"Being a veteran myself, I'm shocked and appalled that the VA would put their veterans in that type of situation," said Dave Nicklas.

According to data collected by the hospital and obtained by CNN, hospital water over the past year did not contain enough disinfectant to prevent Legionnella bacteria from reaching dangerous levels.

Records from the company that installed the hospital's water system show that, in December 2011, an inspection noted, "They have legionella" and "Systems are not being properly maintained."

Five months later, the same company -- LiquiTech -- concluded that the problems were continuing: "Obvious evidence that the systems had not been properly regularly maintained," the records say.

"They were not doing the monitoring; they were not doing the things critical to the efficacy of the system," said LiquiTech Chief Operating Officer Tory Schira.

He said his staff alerted hospital officials twice to the deficiency in their maintenance practices.

But he said there is no evidence that hospital officials fixed the problem and that the deaths "absolutely" could have been prevented had the system been maintained.

Schira's view was shared by Janet Stout, an authority on Legionnaires' disease who worked as a microbiologist at the hospital for 23 years.

"This outbreak was absolutely preventable," she said. Stout and her colleague, Dr. Victor Yu, pioneered the research on the ionization filtration system now used in hospitals nationwide.

But six years ago, the scientists' laboratory was closed by the hospital, which described it as "not productive" and "a drain on clinical resources."

The researchers, who left the hospital after their lab was shut, dispute that characterization. They said that, during the decade before their departure, hospital water had not been linked to a single case of Legionnaires'.

Had the laboratory remained at the hospital, the deaths of Bill Nicklas and others could have been prevented with the turn of a knob, Stout said.

"This is not, as they say, rocket science," she said. "This is straightforward."

A source told CNN that, about six months ago, the hospital did bring in a consultant who made recommendations about how to fix the water, but the VA apparently did not tell that consultant that the hospital had had any Legionnaires' cases. Had the consultant been told, the source said, the consultant's recommendations to the hospital would have been different. The source said it was not clear whether the hospital had followed any of the consultant's recommendations.

Last month, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent a team to the Pittsburgh VA to investigate and make recommendations. Their findings are to be issued to the VA in the coming weeks.

VA spokesman David Cowgill would not agree to an interview. Instead, he released media advisories, one of which concluded: "VA is committed to providing safe facilities and quality care for veterans."

It added that an investigation was under way and tests had shown that remediation efforts had proven successful.

Outside his suburban Pittsburgh home, Bill Nicklas' flag still flies over his front lawn. He would have turned 88 last weekend, but instead of celebrating his birthday, his family held a memorial service. He leaves three sons, five grandchildren and a wife of 59 years.

The family has retained a lawyer and begun the process of filing a claim against the VA.

In the meantime, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, and other members of Congress are calling for a full accounting of the outbreak.

The disease has long existed, but got its name in 1976, when an outbreak occurred among people attending an American Legion convention.

Some 8,000 to 18,000 people are hospitalized with Legionnaires' each year in the United States, according to the CDC.

Though it proves fatal in 5% to 30% of cases, most cases can be treated successfully with antibiotics, the disease agency says.

People contract the disease when they breathe in droplets of water contaminated with the bacteria, it says.

Hospitals are vulnerable because of their complex water systems, and because many of their patients already have illnesses that could put them at increased risk of infection.

Older people, smokers, people with impaired immune systems or chronic lung disease also tend to be at higher risk,the CDC said.


Robber in apparent Mitt Romney mask targets bank

View more videos at: http://nbcwashington.com.

By Pat Collins, NBCWashington.com

STERLING, Va. -- Someone wearing what appears to be a Mitt Romney mask robbed a northern Virginia bank Thursday, but that's not the only reason the FBI is calling the holdup unusual.

The robbery at a Wells Fargo in Sterling was not a grab-and-go robbery. The suspect, who was wearing the mask and a Florida State sweatshirt and holding what appeared to be a gun, went from teller to teller until he took money from all five who were working.

More news from NBCWashington.com

It wasn't the first time the bank was robbed by a person disguised as a politician. In December 2010, someone in a Hillary Clinton mask robbed the location.

Police went to the Party City store behind the bank on Thursday to see if anyone had  bought a similar mask there.

US hits Iran with new sanctions

Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said at an October press conference that Iran will not back down on its nuclear program.
Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said at an October press conference that Iran will not back down on its nuclear program.
  • Seven Iranian companies and five individuals are being targeted, the State Department says
  • The sanctions target companies and people the U.S. says is aiding Iran's nuclear program
  • Prof. Fereydoun Abbasi Davani is among those being slapped with sanctions
  • Abbasi Davani, the head of Iran atomic agency, survived a bomb that Iran blamed on Israel

(CNN) -- The United States slapped new sanctions on Iran on Thursday, targeting a handful of companies and individuals it says are providing materials and technology to Tehran's nuclear program.

The sanctions announced Thursday by the U.S. State and Treasury departments came the same day U.N. nuclear watchdog inspectors wrapped up one-day talks in Iran over its nuclear program, widely suspected by the United States and other Western nations as a front for the country's development of nuclear weapons -- a charge Iran has repeatedly denied.

The talks between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency were aimed at jump-starting negotiations, while allowing agency inspectors to gain access to a military complex where Tehran is suspected of testing nuclear materials.

The IAEA did not immediately detail the talks or whether its inspectors would be granted access to the Parchin military complex, outside of Tehran.

Western sanctions hamper Iran's economy
How sanctions hurt Iran
Reality Check: Nuclear Iran

The sanctions -- the latest in a series to target Iran's economy as well as its ability to develop nuclear material -- were essential "given Iran's continued intransigence on its nuclear program," said Victoria Nuland, the U.S. State Department spokeswoman.

There was no immediate reaction from Iran's government over the latest sanctions.

Among the targets of the latest sanctions is Prof. Fereydoun Abbasi Davani, the head of the Iran Atomic Energy Organization.

Abbasi Davani and his wife survived a car bomb two years ago that Tehran has blamed on Israel. At least four scientists associated with Iran's nuclear program have been killed since 2010.

The companies being targeted with sanctions: FaraTech, the Neda Industrial Group, Aria Nikan Marine Industry, Towled Abzar Boreshi, Iran Pouya, Terjerat Gostar and Tarh O Palayesh.

The sanctions freeze the companies' assets and prohibit business dealings in or with the United States. Companies and banks that defy the U.S. sanctions could be cut off from the U.S. financial system, the State and Treasury departments said.

Iran maintains its nuclear program is for civilian energy purposes only. But the IAEA has said it cannot verify whether the intent of the program is for peaceful means.

A number of Western nations have placed economic and arms-related sanctions on Iran since November 2010 when the IAEA said Tehran was pursuing technology that could be used to build nuclear weapons.

Since then, Iran has been hit by the United States and the European Union with an oil embargo as well as sanctions targeting its banks and number of its businesses.

22 school kids wounded in knife attack

  • The attack takes place at a primary school in Henan province, state media report
  • Police say they have detained a 36-year-old local resident
  • China was hit by a spate of knife and cleaver attacks on school children in 2010

(CNN) -- Twenty-two primary school children have been wounded in a knife attack in central China, the state-run news agency Xinhua reported Friday.

The attack took place Friday morning at the entrance to the Chenpeng Village Primary School in Henan province, Xinhua said, citing local authorities.

A local resident was also wounded in the attack, it said.

Police say they have detained a suspect, a 36-year-old village resident, the agency reported.

China was hit by a spate of knife and cleaver attacks on school children in 2010, some of them fatal.

A number of measures were introduced at the time, including increased security at schools across the country and a regulation requiring people to register with their national ID cards when buying large knives.

Throngs celebrate North Korea launch

'I don't need a lawyer,' says McAfee in Florida

John McAfee, the anti-virus software founder who has evaded Belizean authorities in a homicide investigation, said Thursday that he is glad to be in South Florida.

"It's good to be back in America," the 67-year-old British native told reporters Thursday outside the Beacon Hotel, the hotel on Ocean Drive where he is staying.

McAfee had been deported to the United States from Guatemala Wednesday after sneaking in illegally from Belize, where police have wanted to question him in connection with the death of a U.S. expatriate who lived near him on an island off Belize's coast.

Thursday, McAfee said that U.S. authorities haven't questioned him since his arrival in Miami. He added that there was no need for them to do so. 

"I don't need a lawyer," he said. "I'm not charged with anything."

After arriving from Guatemala, he said his worry now is getting two women, both of whom he says are his girlfriends, to the United States.

He said he would stay in Miami until the women arrived to meet him there. He said they are in Guatemala legally after they, too, recently fled from Belize.

"I'm waiting here until I get visas for Amy and Samantha," he said. "Their lives are in danger. I'm appealing to the State Department for help."

More on John McAfee at NBCMiami.com

Police in Belize have wanted to question McAfee about the November killing of Gregory Viant Faull, who lived a couple of houses down from McAfee's compound on Ambergris Caye, off Belize's Caribbean coast.

McAfee on Thursday said he didn't kill Faull.

"Did I kill Mr. Faull?" he said. "No, let me be clear, I have absolutely nothing to do with the murder in Belize."

McAfee said he would be in danger if he turned himself in to Belizean authorities. He accused them of trying to extort money from him.

"When someone storms your property, threatens your life, shoots your dog and then says, 'Are you going to pay us the $2 million?' Wouldn't you think your life might be in danger if you don't pay the money?" he said. "I did not pay the money. I am here."

McAfee in Miami: 'I'm here. I'm hungry. I plan to eat'

He said Belizean authorities over time made up several allegations against him, including accusing him of running a drug lab.

"If I were to get back on drugs, I have the resources to buy good drugs," said the creator of McAfee security software. "I mean, the margin in selling meth can't be as good as the margin in selling software."

Faking a heart attack in Guatemala bought him some time, allowing his lawyer to arrange for him to be sent to the United States instead of being sent back to Belize, he said.

He said all his funds still were in Belize. "I don't have a home here [in the United States] anymore," he said. "I don't have any money."

It remains unclear whether U.S. authorities have any interest in talking to McAfee. An FBI spokesman in Miami said the agency wasn't involved with McAfee's return to the U.S.

Other U.S. agencies haven't said whether McAfee would be questioned or detained in the country. Officials said there was no active arrest warrant for McAfee that would justify taking him into custody.

Several tourists in South Beach took pictures with the newsmaker of the day, including Suzanne Swanson.

"We're staying in Miami," she said. "We just came down to South Beach to look for movie stars."

Opinion: An unfair portrait of Rice

  • Susan Rice withdraws her name from consideration for State
  • Articles have claimed Rice is undiplomatic and difficult to work for
  • Amar Bakshi says those descriptions clashed with the reality of working for Rice
  • He says Rice demonstrated openness, honesty and passion as a boss

Editor's note: Amar C. Bakshi, a first year student at Yale Law School, is a former special assistant to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and a former producer for CNN.com. Follow him on Twitter: @amarcbakshi

(CNN) -- U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew her name from consideration Thursday for secretary of state. Over the past few months, a slew of articles have criticized Rice's personality. The Daily Beast recently ran a piece titled "Susan Rice's Personality Disorder." These articles allege that America's U.N. ambassador is "brusque," "dismissive," "undiplomatic," "shrill" and awful to work for. I felt compelled to write something because these caricatures of Rice bear no resemblance to my former boss.

I worked for Susan Rice in 2009 and 2010 as her special assistant in the Washington office of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. Over the past few weeks, I have talked to other junior staffers for Rice—current and former—who all share my surprise at the way she has been described.

Amar Bakshi

Junior staffers see a side of their "principal"—Washington-speak for boss—that others do not. Being a special assistant involves a wide swath of activities: couriering papers, sitting in on meetings and delving into some policy issues. In this multifaceted role, my colleagues and I saw Rice as a boss, as a diplomat and as a person. In each arena, Rice demonstrated a rare combination of openness, honesty and passion.

Read more: Susan Rice withdraws from consideration as secretary of state

Early on in the job, I delivered a 50-page paper on Afghanistan to Rice. Before I could set it down on her desk, she asked, "What do you think of it?" I hadn't read a word and froze.

I soon found out that this was typical of Rice. She always asks people at all levels what they think; she's not concerned with hierarchy or status, just ideas. You see this in her strategy meetings, which always involve staff at all levels. You also see this when Rice tours foreign countries. She is just as interested in the stories of people on the streets as the proclamations of ministers—and often more so.

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As a diplomat, Rice can be extraordinarily charming. She can put new acquaintances instantly at ease. But she can just as easily snap them to attention.

Rice has little patience for dissembling and her insistence on thorough preparation means that she invariably knows the subject matter as well as—and usually better than—her interlocutor. This enables Rice to move from charm to hard substance in an instant, getting to the heart of an issue quickly. Some people have criticized this aspect of Rice's personality as "undiplomatic." If diplomacy is the art of talking and doing nothing, then perhaps they're right. But that has never been Susan Rice.

Rice is in government because she believes in strengthening America and improving this world. Rice believes that advancing core principles serves U.S. interests in the long run. You can see this belief guiding her approach to issue after issue, in meeting after meeting.

Read more: Rice's letter to the President

Rice is down to earth, too, which won the loyalty of her slightly younger staffers in particular. She has an inexplicably vast collection of go-go music—a D.C. invention. She has mastered social media and new technology, but only after overcoming a healthy dose of skepticism. And she has a general demeanor, some combination of athlete and wonk, that conveys cool.

Rogers: Rice was facing uphill battle

I don't mean to minimize the serious policy issues she has handled as U.N. ambassador, a member of President Obama's Cabinet and a lifelong public servant. One op-ed is not enough space to engage her many accomplishments in government and the various policy disputes that inevitably arise over 20 years in high office.

All I can say in this short piece—and say with total confidence—is that Susan Rice is a wonderful person and an inspiring boss. Washington is filled with people seeking power for its own sake; people embroiled in partisan politics; petty people; imperious, dismissive people; people who put themselves before others. But that is not Susan Rice.

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The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amar C. Bakshi.