Anxiety rises over Legionnaires’ outbreak

Bronxites had a chance to sound off over concerns about Legionnaires’ disease at a Town Hall on Aug. 3. The borough president and the mayor both say legislative changes are on the way to clean suspect HVAC cooling towers.

A woman expresses her frustration over the city's response to Legionnaires' disease.
A woman expresses her frustration over the city’s response to Legionnaires’ disease.

Health officials try to ease tensions at public meeting

A panel of public health officials tried to allay fears over the recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the South Bronx, telling agitated residents at an Aug. 3 Town Hall meeting that the illness is easily treated if detected early.

The city’s health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, and the deputy commissioner of disease control, Dr. Jay Varma, told a restless, capacity crowd at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, that the Legionella bacteria that causes the pneumonia-like illness has been found in cooling towers from air conditioning systems located on the rooftops of five South Bronx buildings out of 22 tested, including Lincoln Medical Center and the Opera House Hotel on 149th Street.

To date, health officials report that 86 people in the South Bronx have been sickened by the bacteria and seven have died. An estimated 200-300 cases are reported in the city per year, but 261 have already been reported so far this year. New Yorkers with respiratory symptoms, such as fever, cough, chills and muscle aches, are advised to promptly seek medical attention.

Bassett said that although the elderly and those with other illnesses are at risk, antibiotics are effective in killing the bacteria that causes the disease, making early detection and treatment key.

Audience members raise their hands to ask a panel of health experts about the outbreak of Legionnaires' disease.
Audience members raise their hands to ask a panel of health experts about the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease.

Residents lined up at the mic to ask what the extent of the risk was for them and their loved ones. Some worried that the bacteria may turn up in the city’s drinking water, but Bassett responded that health officials are focused on the cooling towers as the lone culprit.

“We’re not looking to test any other source,” she said. “We have a high degree of confidence that this is the source.”

Bassett and Varma explained that “disease detectives” from the health dept. have searched round the clock to isolate the source of the Legionella, after concluding that the outbreak began on July 10 in Mott Haven, Hunts Point, Morrisania and Port Morris.

Varma said that the process of narrowing it down takes time.

“We noticed there was an increase in these specific neighborhoods,” he said. “One of the things that makes it most difficult to detect is that it can take anywhere from two to ten days after exposure for someone who is infected to start showing symptoms,” but researchers are trying to get a “fingerprint of the bacteria.”

A woman in her 70s said that although she has been cancer -free since March, “I sleep under a cooling tower. I’m not strong enough to survive pneumonia.”

The officials explained that as the rooftop towers suck up heat from inside buildings, the bacteria that can form and thrive inside the pipes can be emitted into the outside air as a contaminated mist.

Patricia Yates, a Highbridge resident, said she is skeptical the management company that maintains the Nelson Ave. building she lives in cleans the cooling towers on her building’s roof.

“Is there a penalty?” she asked the panel. “Who would be at fault? A lot of our buildings are deteriorated and neglected by management.”

The experts responded that landlords should be responsible for cleaning their cooling towers.

“The question of negligence will be answered in the future,” said Varma.

“It’s now clear that we need to keep more of a handle on maintenance of cooling towers,” said Bassett.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said he wanted to be sure “the Bronx is treated like any other part of the city” by public health officials. He and City Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson announced this week they will push for legislation to create an inspection mechanism for plumbing systems where the Legionella bacteria thrives. On Aug. 4, Mayor Bill de Blasio gave a press conference at Lincoln Medical Center, announcing he will introduce legislation ramping up inspections on cooling towers, similarly to the way elevators are inspected, and establish a registry of buildings for that purpose.

Much of the evening’s anxiety centered on whether Lincoln is safe for patients. Although many patients are receiving treatment for the disease there, said Bassett, “not a single patient in Lincoln Hospital got Legionnaires’ disease in that hospital.

Milton Nunez, Lincoln’s executive director, tried to reassure the crowd that the hospital is Legionella-free. Responding to an audience member who worried about a cancer stricken family member receiving treatment there, he responded that “the hospital is absolutely safe,” adding it had taken “four or five hours” for the cooling towers to be cleaned and the bacteria eliminated as soon as it was detected.

Reverend Martha Overall of St. Ann’s Church in Morrisania asked where at-risk undocumented or homeless residents without health insurance could go for treatment.

“If someone feels ill, their ability to pay should not be an issue,” Nunez responded. “We’ll take care of you regardless of ability to pay.”

“It doesn’t matter where it is, we take action. When we see clusters, we move in,” Bassett responded, but she and the panel were roundly booed when they told an angry resident asking if a hotline had been set up for the outbreak, that the public should dial 311.

One of the last residents to speak, longtime Mott Haven resident Israel Martinez, 72, said five of his friends and neighbors at a senior center on East 149th Street in the last few weeks fell seriously ill and one died. Based on their symptoms, he suspected Legionnaires’ was the cause, and, his voice cracking with emotion, urged the officials to help.

The panelists continually tried to reassure residents that the risk to the general public remains very low, but ran out of ways to assuage an anxious public. To the question of how the disease had spread so quickly, disease control official Varma had nothing new to offer.

“We don’t know the answer right now,” he said.

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