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The New York Health Department is presently investigating a Sugar Hill Legionnaires disease outbreak. Eight people have fallen ill over the course of five days. All eight of the victims who have been registered so far have been sent to the hospital. None have died as of the time of this writing.
This is the second cluster of Legionnaire’s cases to be registered in Washington Heights this year. In July of this year, residents of Washington Heights and Hamilton Heights in New York fell ill with the bacterial disease. The first case of Legionnaires was registered on the 11th of July; 27 in total ended up getting sick. One person perished.
The source of that first outbreak was identified by the health department as a cooling tower in Sugar Hill Project in Harlem. Samples of bacteria taken from six of the victims had the same genetic fingerprint as Legionella bacteria taken from that cooling tower, indicating that it may have been the source of the outbreak.
The health department ordered the Sugar Hill Project to clean and disinfect the cleaning tower that was identified as the source of the original outbreak. As of this time, officials aren’t sure if the same cooling tower is the source of this second outbreak as well. Although it’s already been cleaned and disinfected once, they’ve ordered building management to do the same again out of an abundance of caution; in the geographical sense, the latest cluster of cases is in nearly the exact same place as the July cluster, so there’s a chance that the same cooling tower is responsible.
So far, investigators haven’t been able to make a determination as to the source of the latest outbreak. According to a press release from the health department, they’re currently sampling bacteria from 20 cooling towers within a mile-wide radius of the cluster of cases. Any towers that test positive for Legionella bacteria will be required to increase biocide. That’s a fancy word for chemicals like chlorine that have antibacterial qualities and can be used to sanitize a water system that’s suspected as a source of the bacteria.
The diagnosed individuals in this current outbreak range in age from 40 to 80, with the majority over the age of fifty, according to a press release put out by the health department. Anyone who lives in the area and is experiencing flu-like symptoms, fever, cough, or difficulty breathing is encouraged to seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Some groups are at higher risk to contract Legionnaires than others. Individuals who are older than fifty, who smoke cigarettes, who have chronic lung disease or who are immunocompromised are encouraged to keep a close eye on their health and to seek medical attention immediately if they experience the symptoms described in the preceding paragraph.
Legionnaires disease isn’t communicable from person to person. Instead, it spreads through sources of fresh water: air conditioning, cooling towers, hot tubs, and hot water tanks have all been cited as reservoirs of Legionella in the past. These sources are preferred by the bacteria because their ideal temperature range for water is quite high. They thrive in water that’s heated to 95 degrees fahrenheit. The bacteria enter the body while riding in tiny drops of water that have been aerosolized; that is, they’re small enough to float suspended on the air.
There is no vaccine for Legionnaires. The only effective way to prevent the growth and transmission of the bacteria is to maintain high standards of hygiene for water systems. Once someone has developed the infection, it can be treated with antibiotics.
It’s technically a form of pneumonia, and many of the symptoms are the same as other types of pneumonia; coughing, shortness of breath, chest pains, and fever are all characteristic of the disease. About half of Legionnaires patients develop gastrointestinal symptoms as well; these can include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Many also exhibit neurological symptoms, including confusion and problems with cognition.
Legionnaires is a serious and deadly condition; most of those who develop it need to be hospitalized. About one in ten who fall ill with the condition end up dying from it. The best hope for surviving a case of Legionnaires is to detect the disease early and start treatment with antibiotics to contain the infection as soon as possible.
This isn’t the first time that the city of New York has grappled with this disease. An outbreak in 2015 sickened 120 people and killed 12, according to the New York Times. An average year sees between 200 and 500 New Yorkers fall ill with the bacteria.
Legionnaires and legionella pneumophila, the bacteria that causes it, are so called because of an outbreak that happened in Philadelphia in the summer of 1976. 2,000 members of the veterans organization the American Legion were attending a convention to celebrate America’s bicentennial at the Bellevue-Stratford hotel in Philadelphia.
Shortly after the end of the convention, the first legionnaire died. He was followed swiftly by more than two dozen of his comrades. Some 182 members of the American Legion fell ill; 29 died.
The Centers for Disease Control saw reason to investigate. They identified a new strain of bacteria, which they named legionella pneumophila in honor of the American Legion members who had been affected by the outbreak. The bacteria were eventually found to have been breeding in the cooling tower for the hotel’s air conditioning system. Subsequent investigation revealed that legionella had been responsible for several other outbreaks in the past, both at the Bellevue-Stratford and elsewhere.
If you believe you have developed Legionnaires’ disease, we want you to know that a Legionnaires’ Lawyer at the Lange Law Firm, PLLC is currently investigating this matter and offering free legal consultations. Our lawyer, Jory Lange became a lawyer to help make our communities and families safer. Our firm already represents several families in the first Washington Heights outbreak.
If you or a loved one have become ill with Legionnaires’ disease, you can call (833) 330-3663 for a free consultation or complete the form here.
By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)