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The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) confirmed that the number of Legionnaires’ disease cases has increased to 16 victims in an upper Manhattan community cluster.

Health officials believe vapor from water cooling towers is spreading Legionella bacteria in parts of Washington Heights and Hamilton Heights. Legionella causes Legionnaires’ disease, which is a type of pneumonia that causes flu-like symptoms.

“It almost killed me,” Lorenzo McGougan, a resident of Washington Heights, told New York City’s CBS2 news. “Believe me, I was near there. I’ve never been that sick in my life.”

McGougan, 60, said he reported his case of Legionnaires’ disease to the DOHMH in May. Officials, however, said McGougan’s case isn’t one of the 16 included in this cluster.

Upper Manhattan community cluster: more to come?

There are as many as 500 cases of Legionnaires’ disease in New York City every year, but officials said they are more concerned when those illnesses are clustered. The source of the current cluster is unknown, and the DOHMH is handing out flyers to educate the community.

“We may continue to see additional cases,” DOHMH Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett told residents of the community at a meeting held last week at Saint Luke’s African Methodist Episcopal Church (1872 Amsterdam Avenue).

Residents who have contracted the illness live in a 20-block area that includes northern Hamilton Heights and crosses into southern Washington Heights. Ten of the initial cluster of 11 people infected were hospitalized; at least seven of those victims are still in the hospital.

Patients’ ages range from younger than 40 years old to older than 80; the majority of victims are 50 or older.

A “cluster,” not an “outbreak”
The illnesses are being categorized as a “cluster” because the cases are linked in time (a seven-day period) and space (a 20-block area). If a common source is found for the illnesses, officials would recategorize them as an “outbreak.”

Upper Manhattan community cluster of Legionnaires' disease up to 16 victims

New York City health officials have confirmed that the number of Legionnaires’ disease cases in an upper Manhattan community cluster has increased to 16 victims.

Upper Manhattan community cluster: cooling towers

Legionnaires’ disease is also called Legionella pneumonia and legionellosis, and it can be deadly – about 10 percent of people who contract the disease will die.

“Thankfully, there have been no fatalities yet,” New York City Council member Mark Levine said.

Cooling towers are the suspected source of this cluster. “The department has already identified all of the cooling towers that are registered with the city in this geography, and (we have) tested all of these cooling towers,” Bassett said.

Levine explained the difference between water towers and cooling towers. “Don’t confuse (cooling towers) with water towers, which are in almost every building,” he said. “This has nothing to do with water towers.

“This is cooling towers that are used in buildings with central air conditioning, that give off a water vapor, and when it’s hot out – and it’s been really hot the last couple of weeks – this bacteria thrives.”

Inspectors already have taken water samples from the cooling towers of 20 buildings between 145th and 155th Streets. Full results usually take two weeks to complete.

Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, deputy commissioner of Disease Control, said the city already has treated the water in those towers.

Upper Manhattan community cluster: addressing concerns

During the community meeting, officials informed residents of the community that Legionnaires’ disease cannot be contracted from another person.

“While most people exposed to Legionella don’t get sick, individuals ages 50 and above – especially those who smoke and have chronic lung conditions – are at a higher risk,” Bassett said. “This disease is very treatable with antibiotics. I encourage anyone with symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease to seek care early.”

Others who are more susceptible to Legionella include:

  • people with compromised immune systems
  • heavy drinkers of alcoholic beverages
  • smokers, both current and former
  • recipients of organ transplants
  • people on drug protocols (corticosteroids, to name one).

Upper Manhattan community cluster: Legionnaires’ 101

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 25,000 cases of pneumonia due to Legionella bacteria (Legionella pneumophila) occur annually in the U.S. However, because of the disease’s nonspecific signs and symptoms, only 5,000 cases are reported.

Legionella bacteria are generally contracted by inhaling microscopic water droplets (mist or vapor). The bacteria, which grow best in warm water, are found primarily in human-made environments.

Symptoms of Legionnaires’
Legionnaires’ disease symptoms are similar to those of other types of pneumonia, and they also can resemble symptoms of flu:

  • cough
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • fever
  • muscle aches
  • headaches
  • gastrointestinal symptoms (nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, etc.)
  • mental changes, such as confusion.

Sources of Legionella
Legionnaires’ disease clusters and outbreaks have been linked to numerous sources:

  • cooling towers of air conditioning systems
  • large water systems (hospitals, nursing homes, hotels, etc.)
  • large plumbing systems
  • hot-water tanks and heaters
  • showers and faucets
  • swimming pools
  • hot tubs and whirlpools (cruise ships, hotel pool areas, etc.)
  • equipment used in physical therapy
  • mist machines (grocery store produce sections, for instance)
  • hand-held sprayers
  • decorative fountains.