Legionnaires’ disease cases rise in Highbridge neighborhood as city health officials continue outbreak probe

Legionella positive
Health department officials told the Bronx Times Tuesday that additional positive tests results for Legionnaires’ disease have been confirmed in the Highbridge area.
Photo courtesy Getty Images

Ten people have now tested positive for Legionnaires’ disease in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, according to city health officials.

The spread of the airborne illness follows Saturday’s confirmation of four confirmed cases by the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The health department has since launched an investigation into concerns over an outbreak in the borough’s 10452 and 10456 ZIP codes, which also includes the neighborhoods of Morrisania and Melrose. All confirmed cases have been linked to Highbridge, however.

The first case of the disease, a form of pneumonia caused by bacteria that forms in warm water, was reported on May 9. There have been no deaths associated with the cluster.

Beginning Tuesday, the health department plans to begin distributing flyers throughout the Highbridge alerting those who live and work in the community of the cluster, a source told the Bronx Times. Any adults in the affected Highbridge area experiencing flu-like symptoms, fever, cough or difficulty breathing should seek medical attention.

The health department continues “sampling and testing water from all cooling tower systems” in the area.

Cases of Legionnaires’ disease can often be traced back to “cooling towers, whirlpool spas, hot tubs, humidifiers, hot water tanks and evaporative condensers of large air-conditioning systems.” People become ill only when breathing in water vapor containing the Legionella bacteria. The disease is treatable with antibiotics, health officials said.

An average of 200-500 Legionnaires’ disease cases are reported in the city every year, according to health officials. And there have been numerous outbreaks of Legionnaires in the Bronx over the years, including three separate incidents in 2015 that infected 153 people and killed 17. The most recent bout came in 2018 at Co-op City, which killed one person.

Marvin Hall, 56, contracted Legionnaires in August 2015 while living in Morrisania. Hall was among more than 120 people  to contract the illness from the city’s historic Opera Hotel in the South Bronx — the biggest outbreak of the disease in the city’s history, which killed 12 people.

A contaminated rooftop air-conditioning unit was determined to be the origin of that outbreak.

“The chest is really what I remember,” said Hall, who now lives in Parsippany-Troy Hill, New Jersey. “I’ve never had pneumonia and I luckily didn’t contract COVID, but this was some of the most excruciating chest pain I’ve ever experienced. I felt like someone was caving my chest in and each time I tried to breathe, the punch felt harder and harder.”

Hall said the effects of the illness made it “hard to find energy to do basic things. “ 

“I couldn’t work for a full year because I was so tired … I used to work a little office job, but I couldn’t stay awake at my desk,” he added. “My wife told me that during my third or fourth day of recovery, I kept just getting up from bed and I would curl in a fetal position on the floor sobbing and puking. I don’t remember any of it, and I can’t imagine how those who contracted it now are feeling.”

People 50 years of age and older, cigarettes smokers and those with compromised immune systems or respiratory issues are at a higher risk for contracting the disease. Legionella testing should be considered by clinicians based on history, symptoms and other findings.

“My advice is to trust the doctors, take what they say seriously because this disease kills, and it has killed (people) in the Bronx disproportionately,” said Hall. “So I’m sending love to my old borough and I hope that those who have it come out stronger.”

Reach Christian Falcone at cfalcone@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-2541. Reach Robbie Sequeira at rsequeira@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes