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The year’s second Legionnaires’ disease outbreak has now affected 20 residents of lower Washington Heights since the end of September, according to the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) website.

Although the DOHMH website states 20 people have been sickened in the current outbreak, no official announcement was made on the updated statistics. Of the 20 people sickened, one victim has died.

Lower Washington Heights: DOHMH notice

The DOHMH issued a notice to residents of lower Washington Heights that read:

“The Health Department is investigating a cluster of Legionnaires’ disease in lower Washington Heights. Twenty people have been diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease since the end of September. The Health Department is investigating these cases and testing the water from all cooling tower systems in this section of Washington Heights. The risk to most people is low, but if you have flu-like symptoms, please see your medical provider right away.”

(Note: The DOHMH is classifying this event as a “cluster” because the cases are linked in time and space but no common source has been identified. If that happens, the event will be recategorized as an “outbreak.” This blog is classifying this as an “outbreak,” simply because the probability is high that a specific source will be found.)

Lower Washington Heights outbreak hits 20 Legionnaires cases

The year’s second Legionnaires’ disease outbreak has now affected 20 residents of lower Washington Heights since the end of September. One victim has died. (Upper Manhattan is the northernmost region of Manhattan, and Washington Heights is a neighborhood in the area.)

Lower Washington Heights: summer outbreak

The investigation into the area’s first outbreak identified a cooling tower at Sugar Hill Project (898 St. Nicholas Avenue) as the cause for 27 illnesses – and one death – over the summer. A strain of Legionella bacteria, which causes Legionnaires’ disease, was common between six victims and a cooling tower at Sugar Hill Project.

Because of the current outbreak’s proximity to Sugar Hill Project, the DOHMH has ordered that building’s owners to re-clean and re-disinfect the cooling system. That process reportedly was finished Oct. 5.

Lower Washington Heights: Oct. 5 start

That date was when the current outbreak first started making headlines. The DOHMH announced that eight Washington Heights residents had contracted Legionnaires’ disease over a five-day span. That initial group of victims ranges in age from younger than 40 to older than 80.

No information has been provided on the other 15 victims, including the victim who died.

Lower Washington Heights: low risk

Despite the continuing increase in numbers of cases, DOHMH officials said they believe the risk of contracting Legionnaires’ disease in the area is “very low,” although they also said they expect more cases could be confirmed.

“The Health Department has identified a second cluster this season of Legionnaires’ disease in the lower Washington Heights area, and we are taking aggressive steps to ensure the safety of residents,” acting DOHMH commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot said in a statement Oct. 5.

Nonetheless, if you live in upper Manhattan, or work or travel in the affected neighborhoods, it’s essential that you remain vigilant. A person infected with Legionella might not have developed symptoms because of the disease’s long incubation period (up to two weeks).

Lower Washington Heights: Legionnaires info

Legionnaires’ disease symptoms are numerous, and can include:

  • fever (104 degrees or higher) and chills
  • severe headaches
  • muscle pains
  • lack of appetite
  • dyspnea (shortness of breath)
  • pleuritic chest pain (pain caused by inflamed lungs)
  • cough, which can produce blood and mucus
  • gastrointestinal problems (diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, etc.)
  • mental agitation and confusion.

High-risk categories
Anyone can become ill from Legionella, but people most susceptible to the bacteria include:

  • anyone 50 years old or older
  • anyone with a chronic lung disease or COPD (bronchitis or emphysema)
  • smokers, both current or former
  • anyone with a weakened immune system
  • heavy drinkers of alcoholic beverages
  • recipients of organ transplants
  • anyone on a specific drug protocol.

One in 10 victims die
Because symptoms are similar to those of other forms of pneumonia (lung infection) or influenza (flu), many cases go unreported. Statistics kept by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show about 20 percent (5,000 of an estimated 25,000) of cases in the United States are reported.

Additionally, about 10 percent of victims will die from Legionnaires’ disease.

Lower Washington Heights: another record year?

2017 was a record year for Legionnaires’ disease in the state of New York, according to the CDC. More than 1,000 residents were sickened in the state.

The Alliance to Prevent Legionnaires’ Disease has projected that the state record will be broken again this year. As of Oct. 1, 875 cases have been reported, and 1,180 are projected by the end of the year.

New York City alone is responsible for an average of up to 500 Legionnaires’ disease cases annually. In 2017, there were 441 Legionnaires cases in the city, a 64 percent increase from 2016’s total of 268.