The largest outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease in the city’s history has hit the south Bronx.
There were 86 reported cases of the form of pneumonia in the area and seven dead as of a Tuesday press conference with Mayor de Blasio and Department of Health commissioner Mary Bassett at Lincoln Hospital. An eighth was reported dead on Wednesday.
The legionella bacteria has been found in cooling towers at five buildings including Lincoln Hospital, and the outbreak spans the neighborhoods of High Bridge-Morrisania and Hunts Point-Mott Haven, according to the health department.
The mayor emphasized that the cooling towers are not the same as water tanks, and that there has been no contamination of the city’s water supply.
“There is no risk to our drinking water,” said de Blasio.
The cooling systems use recirculated water that can develop bacteria, and can release contaminated mist into the air leading to the current outbreak, as opposed to exposure within specific buildings, the mayor said.
No infection has been contracted within Lincoln Hospital by staff or patients.
All five cooling towers identified have been decontaminated, and it is unclear at the moment whether one or more of those cooling towers caused the outbreak, said Bassett.
According the DOH, groups at high risk for Legionnaires’ disease include people who are middle-aged or older—especially cigarette smokers—people with chronic lung disease or weakened immune systems and people who take medicines that weaken their immune systems.
Those that have died from the disease, which is treatable with antibiotics and has a 5-10 percent fatality rate, had underlying health issues, said the mayor.
Symptoms include fever, cough, and difficulty breathing, and neighborhood residents should seek treatment if they observe them.
The incubation period for the disease is 10 days, so new cases could emerge in the coming week despite remediation.
“It’s crucial that each case be identified early on, and that treatment be reached quickly, and achieved quickly,” said de Blasio.
While the DOH continues to address the ongoing outbreak, which they believe peaked on July 30, the mayor has turned his attention to a legislative solution, which he said would be introduced to the City Council within the week.
That legislation would require building owners with cooling towers to register with the city, would require regular inspections, and would establish consequences for non-compliance.
“We now have to not only finish addressing this immediate outbreak, but we have to position ourselves for the future,” said de Blasio. “And we’re determined to do everything in our power to minimize the possibility of this ever happening again.”
The mayor’s support of legislation is encouraging, said Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr in a statement Tuesday.
“It is the responsibility of government to protect the health and well-being of the public, and this common sense proposal will help do just that,” said Diaz in a statement. “It cannot be forgotten that seven Bronx residents have died during this outbreak. An appropriate inspection mechanism could have saved lives.”
Monday night, Diaz attended a town hall meeting with local elected officials and the health commissioner at the Bronx Museum, where more than 250 concerned residents attended and another 150 received information from DOH representatives outside the venue.
The DOH is continuing to investigate the outbreak to determine the specific cause of the unprecedented outbreak, which could take weeks.
“People have asked “Why the south Bronx?‘” said Bassett. “We have to wait for more information to be able to answer that more fully.”