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What are the risks to inpatients during hospital construction or renovation?

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Hospital-acquired infections related to construction and renovation activities account for more than 5,000 deaths per year across the United States.1

Hospital construction, renovation, and demolition projects ultimately serve the interests of patients, but they also can put inpatients at risk of mold infection, Legionnaires disease, sleep deprivation, exacerbation of lung disease, and in rare cases, physical injury.

Hospitals are in a continuous state of transformation to meet the needs of medical and technologic advances and an increasing patient population,1 and in the last 10 years, more than $200 billion has been spent on construction projects at US healthcare facilities. Therefore, constant attention is needed to reduce the risks to the health of hospitalized patients during these projects.


Mold infections

Construction can cause substantial dust contamination and scatter large amounts of fungal spores. An analysis conducted during a period of excavation at a hospital campus showed a significant association between excavation activities and hospital-acquired mold infections (hazard ratio [HR] 2.8, P = .01) but not yeast infections (HR 0.75, P = .78).2

Aspergillus species have been the organisms most commonly involved in hospital-acquired mold infection. In a review of 53 studies including 458 patients,3A fumigatus was identified in 154 patients, and A flavus was identified in 101 patients. A niger, A terreus, A nidulans, Zygomycetes, and other fungi were also identified, but to a much lesser extent. Hematologic malignancies were the predominant underlying morbidity in 299 patients. Half of the sources of healthcare-associated Aspergillus outbreaks were estimated to result from construction and renovation activities within or surrounding the hospital.3

Heavy demolition and transportation of wreckage have been found to cause the greatest concentrations of Aspergillus species,1 but even small concentrations may be sufficient to cause infection in high-risk hospitalized patients.3 Invasive pulmonary aspergillosis is the mold infection most commonly associated with these activities, particularly in immunocompromised and critically ill patients. It is characterized by invasion of lung tissue by Aspergillus hyphae. Hematogenous dissemination occurs in about 25% of patients, and the death rate often exceeds 50%.4

A review of cases of fungal infection during hospital construction, renovation, and demolition projects from 1976 to 2014 identified 372 infected patients, of whom 180 died.5 The majority of infections were due to Aspergillus. Other fungi included Rhizopus, Candida, and Fusarium. Infections occurred mainly in patients with hematologic malignancies and patients who had undergone stem cell transplant (76%), followed by patients with other malignancies or transplant (19%). Rarely affected were patients in the intensive care unit or patients with rheumatologic diseases or on hemodialysis.5

Legionnaires disease

Legionnaires disease is a form of atypical pneumonia caused by the bacterium Legionella, often associated with differing degrees of gastrointestinal symptoms. Legionella species are the bacteria most often associated with construction in hospitals, as construction and demolition often result in collections of stagnant water.

The primary mode of transmission is inhalation of contaminated mist or aerosols. Legionella species can also colonize newly constructed hospital buildings within weeks of installation of water fixtures.

In a large university-affiliated hospital, 2 cases of nosocomial legionellosis were identified during a period of major construction.6 An epidemiologic investigation traced the source to a widespread contamination of potable water within the hospital. One patient’s isolate was similar to that of a water sample from the faucet in his room, and an association between Legionnaires disease and construction was postulated.

Another institution’s newly constructed hematology-oncology unit identified 10 cases of Legionnaires disease over a 12-week period in patients and visitors with exposure to the unit during and within the incubation period.7 A clinical and environmental assessment found 3 clinical isolates of Legionella identical to environmental isolates found from the unit, strongly implicating the potable water system as the likely source.7

In Ohio, 11 cases of hospital-acquired Legionnaires disease were identified in patients moved to a newly constructed 12-story addition to a hospital, and 1 of those died.8

Legionella infections appear to be less common than mold infections when reviewing the available literature on patients exposed to hospital construction, renovation, or demolition activities. Yet unlike mold infections, which occur mostly in immunocompromised patients, Legionella also affects people with normal immunity.1

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