New case of Legionnaires’ detected in Melrose

A tenant at Melrose Houses has fallen ill with Legionnaires’ disease. Residents say it’s the fourth case of the disease at 681 Courtlandt Ave. in the last month, prompting them to ask why the building’s cooling tower wasn’t tested until now.

Residents of Melrose Houses at a public meeting at the Classic Center on August 2.
Residents of Melrose Houses at a public meeting at the Classic Center on Sept. 2.

Latest to fall ill is a resident of Melrose Houses

Another person in the South Bronx has developed Legionnaires disease, sparking concern for some residents that the biggest outbreak of the disease in New York City’s history is not over.

After a resident from NYCHA’s Melrose Houses was diagnosed with Legionnaires earlier this week, the city tested the cooling tower and the water distribution system at 681 Courtlandt Avenue. Preliminary tests conducted on Sept. 1 showed signs of the Legionella bacteria in the hot water system. 

A day after the tower was tested, city officials convened an emergency meeting at Melrose Houses, where anxious residents who’d learned just hours earlier that their building had the bacteria, packed the complex’s Classic Center. Dr. Mary T. Bassett, the city’s health commissioner, said the Department of Health and NYCHA were taking immediate steps to ensure residents are safe from the potentially deadly disease.

The city has begun installing filters that reduce the risk of the bacteria on the kitchen and bathroom faucets in each apartment in the complex, and says that process will be finished by Sept. 5. Until then, the hot water has been turned off in 681 Courtlandt. In addition, Bassett announced the health dept. will install a system to keep the building’s water supply clean by the end of the week.

But tenants at Melrose Houses were angry their building hadn’t been inspected sooner. Since March, four people have gotten the disease at 681 Courtlandt Avenue, one of the eight buildings that make up Melrose Houses. The person who contracted Legionnaires’ this week also lived in that building.

“They knew it was in this area, this has been going on since March,” said Neisce Stacks, a resident of Melrose Houses. “I don’t understand why they’re talking about this one case.”

Only buildings with a cluster of outbreaks are examined, said Bassett. When the fourth person at 681 Courtlandt Ave. got sick this week, the building was quickly tested. Between 200 and 300 New Yorkers contract Legionnaires every year, she said, adding that the present case could be independent from the borough’s recent flareup.

“We don’t know if it’s from the water, or a cooling tower from another source,” Bassett said. The other seven buildings at Melrose Houses are currently being tested. Two of them have already come back negative.

Many residents voiced frustration that not all of the buildings at Melrose Houses were getting the new system to ensure their water supplies are free of the Legionella bacteria.

“There should be preventive measures,” said Almeta Trammel, a Melrose Houses resident.

“It wouldn’t be appropriate to put this into place everywhere,” said Daniel Kass, deputy commissioner of environmental health. “It’s very expensive, and where there’s no bacteria, there’s no reason.”

The conditions that allow for the bacteria, Bassett said, are actually very rare.

The building at 681 Courtlandt Avenue is less that half a mile from Lincoln Hospital and the Concourse Plaza shopping mall, two cites that tested positive for the bacteria early on in the Legionnaires outbreak.

The first case of the recent outbreak was eventually traced to a cooling tower at the Opera House Hotel near the Hub on East 149th Street. In all, over 100 were sickened by the disease and 12 people died. The first case during the outbreak was contracted on July 10, the last on Aug. 3, health officials concluded.

“It’s not right. We were in the center of the outbreak,” said Danny Barber, a resident leader at the Andrew Jackson Houses in Melrose. “Why weren’t we tested earlier?”

At a press conference at a senior housing complex on East 138th Street the following day, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Dr. Bassett downplayed the latest case, saying that the sickened Melrose resident could have contracted the disease previously before the Opera House cooling tower was treated, but that the city tests for Legionella in any building where at least two cases of Legionnaires’ are confirmed. They added that conclusive results on the hot water system are due next week.

Additional reporting by Joe Hirsch. The story was updated on Sept. 3 to correct that a preliminary finding of Legionella was made in the Melrose Houses’ hot water system rather than a cooling tower.