12 now dead in Legionnaires' outbreak, as new cases slow

Monday, August 10, 2015
VIDEO: 10 now dead in Legionnaires' outbreak
All New York City property owners ordered to test cooling towers as the death toll in the Legionnaires' outbreak has risen to 10.

NEW YORK, N.Y. -- Two more people in the Bronx have died of Legionnaires' disease, bringing the total of fatalities to 12 in the largest outbreak of the disease in New York City history, officials said Monday.

There are now 113 reported cases of Legionnaires' in the Bronx, and cooling towers in 15 buildings have tested positive for the legionella bacteria, officials said. While cleaning crews crisscrossed the Bronx, the continued tension between state and city governments threaten to undermine officials' expressions of confidence that the outbreak is tapering off.

The outbreak has become the city's most significant public health crisis since last fall's Ebola scare. For more than a month now, cases of Legionnaires' - a form of pneumonia especially dangerous for the elderly and for people with underlying health issues - have been reported throughout a section of the South Bronx, the city's poorest neighborhood.

"We are dealing with a new set of realities we have never experienced that we have never encountered before in this city," said de Blasio, who added that the nation's largest city has had to create "a playbook" on the fly as to how to handle the crisis.

The identities of the deceased were not released.

Officials said that all but one of the 12 fatalities was more than 40 years old and all of them had underlying health problems. Because the disease has a 10-day incubation period there can be a lag in reporting cases, but de Blasio said Monday that city health officials believe there hasn't been a new diagnosis since Aug. 3.

Last Thursday health officials ordered cooling towers on buildings throughout the city tested for the bacteria that causes the illness.

Since its appearance late last month in the South Bronx, 100 people have been diagnosed with the disease, a form of pneumonia caused by breathing in mist contaminated with the Legionella bacteria.

The disease is easily diagnosed and can be treated with antibiotics but poses a serious risk to anyone with an underlying medical condition. Officials said all 10 people who died had other complicating conditions.

The outbreak has been traced to cooling towers, which release mist. Five towers in the South Bronx tested positive for the bacteria and have since been decontaminated.

Mayor Bill De Blasio stressed Thursday that the mandated tests are a precautionary measure and the city is "confident that we have already disinfected the source of this outbreak."

The Health Department ordered that within the next 14 days, all buildings with cooling towers that haven't been tested in the last 30 days be tested and any towers found contaminated be disinfected. Failure to comply is a misdemeanor.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state Department of Health would offer free testing of cooling towers and evaporative condenser units, where the bacteria also can hide. The offer is good until October.

It's not uncommon for the city to report cases of Legionnaires' Disease but the cases usually aren't clustered in one location as they are in this latest outbreak.

"We've never seen a situation like this before in New York City or, of course, these efforts would have been in place in advance," the mayor said.

The illness gets its name from a 1976 outbreak at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia when 34 people died.


AP writer Jonathan Lemire contributed to this story.