One dead, eight hospitalized as Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Highbridge section grows

Highbridge, pedestrian bridge
One person has died and eight are currently hospitalized after a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in the Bronx’s Highbridge community. Pictured is the High Bridge which connects Highbridge to Washington Heights in Manhattan.
Photo Adrian Childress

One person has died and eight remain hospitalized, city health officials said Wednesday as they try to get a handle on a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in the Highbridge section of the Bronx.

City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene officials also confirmed that 19 people had tested positive for the illness, which has now been traced back to May 3. On Saturday, the health department announced they were launching an investigation into the possibility of a growing cluster of Legionnaires’ disease in the 10452 and 10456 ZIP codes, after four people had contracted the disease.

After sampling cooling towers in the outbreak zone, four tested positive for the presence of Legionella pneumophila, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, according to health officials. The towers were ordered to be immediately disinfected, and health officials said inspectors plan to follow up to ensure the towers have been properly sanitized. Health department staff also began conducting an outreach campaign Tuesday in the Highbridge area to inform residents of the cluster.

A health department official told the Bronx Times that the individual who died was over the age of 50 “with risk factors.”

“We are saddened to hear about a death in a person who contracted Legionnaires’,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan. “Health Department staff are working to ensure that buildings in the cluster area are treated and conditions remediated quickly. While most people exposed to the bacteria do not get sick, Legionnaires’ disease can cause severe illness or be fatal for those at higher risk, including people with pre-existing chronic health issues. That’s why it’s crucial that you seek health care as soon as you experience flu-like symptoms.”

Legionnaires’ disease is a type of pneumonia caused by bacteria that grows in warm water. Symptoms resemble other types of pneumonia and the flu, and can include fever, chills, muscle aches and a cough. People living or working in the area of the outbreak who are experiencing symptoms are advised to seek medical attention.

Health officials said 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 only become sick when breathing in water vapors containing the Legionella bacteria. The disease is not transmissible from person to person and is treatable with antibiotics if detected early, health officials said.

An average of 200-500 Legionnaires’ disease cases are reported in the city every year. 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 occurrence of the disease came in 2018 at Co-op City, which killed one person.

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.

This article was updated at 3:22 p.m. on May  25.

Reach Christian Falcone at [email protected] or (718) 260-2541. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes