Anxious Bronx Residents Overflow Legionnaires’ Town Hall

Credit: Kathleen Canzoniero

Credit: Kathleen Canzoniero

Monday night’s overflow crowd at the Legionnaires’ Town Hall is an indication of the anxiety felt by Bronx residents living in the outbreak zone. Shortly before the meeting began the Health Department (DOHMH) announced that the number of deaths had increased to seven. The additional deaths were only just reported to the department on Sunday and the number of persons afflicted has increased to 81. More people have required hospitalization. And the origin of the outbreak remains unknown.

Credit: Kathleen Canzoniero

Credit: Kathleen Canzoniero

 

Once the doors of the Bronx Museum were closed because the venue had reached its fire code limit, the Health Department deployed doctors and other staff to talk to small groups of residents gathered outside on the Grand Concourse.

 

 

Peter Kadushin, a city spokesman, admitted that the agency underestimated the community response because last year when the city held a similar meeting during the height of the Ebola outbreak, the room accommodated a few hundred people.

 

Credit: Kathleen Canzoniero

Credit: Kathleen Canzoniero

Dr. Mary T. Bassett (center), DOHMH Commissioner stated, “We have a high degree of confidence that its (Legionnaires’) origin is from the cooling towers.” She stated that the disease spreads from the roof into the neighborhood but does not actually contaminate the building. When asked by a resident if the contaminated mist from a cooling tower can reach the ground, Dr. Bassett admitted that it is possible, “The mist generally evaporates in the air but it is possible for some to reach the sidewalk,” said Bassett.

During the packed town hall, Commissioner Bassett reiterated that New York City’s drinking water supply and other water fixtures, like fountains, shower heads and pools, are safe throughout New York City and are unaffected by legionella — the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease. Attendees also learned that water towers are unaffected by legionella. 

Credit: Kathleen Canzoniero

Credit: Kathleen Canzoniero

Many questions from residents (both inside and outside the venue) focused on whether their drinking water was contaminated and if any testing would be done. “If drinking water was contaminated then we would have seen a cluster of people in one building or neighborhood being infected.” Dr. Bassett went on to say that the DOHMH is not looking to test any other sources for Legionnaires’.Anxieties seemed to ease upon learning that home air conditioner units are unaffected and walking into air conditioned environments is equally safe.

All seventeen cooling tower sites have until Friday to submit long-term plans detailing how they will maintain the cooling towers to protect against any future growth of legionella.

Elected officials led by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr and Council Member Vanessa Gibson expressed dismay that there is no regulatory requirement that cooling towers and other water systems susceptible to legionella undergo yearly inspection and remediation.

In a statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised new legislation to halt future outbreaks of Legionnaires’ and to prevent the cycle of these outbreaks from continuing. The comprehensive package will address inspections, new recommended action in the case of positive tests, and sanctions for those who fail to comply with new standards.

“Legionnaires’ Disease outbreaks have become far too common over the past ten years, and the City will respond not by only addressing an outbreak as it occurs, but with a new plan to help prevent these outbreaks from happening in the first place,” said Mayor de Blasio.

Milton Nunez, Executive Director of Lincoln Hospital, insisted that the hospital has been decontaminated and that none of the people infected with the disease got it while at Lincoln Hospital.
Credit: Kathleen Canzoniero

Credit: Kathleen Canzoniero

Former West Bronx assemblyman Israel Martinez made a tearful presentation during the public Q-and-A portion of the town hall. Martinez claimed that four of his neighbors living at 784 East 149th Street had died of Legionnaires’ Disease.

 

 

Associate editor Kathleen Canzoniero contributed to this report.