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The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) said 2018’s second Washington Heights Legionnaires outbreak has increased to 32 cases, with one death. The DOHMH also said the investigation into the outbreak was “nearing its conclusion.”

This Washington Heights Legionnaires outbreak has quadrupled since it was first announced on Oct. 5. That’s when acting health commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot confirmed that eight people had contracted the bacterial infection. The source of the Legionella bacteria, which causes Legionnaires’ disease, still has not been identified.

Twenty-seven people were sickened in the first outbreak, during the summertime. Twenty-five victims needed to be hospitalized, and one died then, too.

The source of that Washington Heights Legionnaires outbreak was identified as a cooling tower at the Sugar Hill Project, which is located at 898 St. Nicholas Avenue (155th and St. Nicholas). Tests revealed that a strain of Legionella bacteria was common between six victims and a Sugar Hill Project cooling tower.

Washington Heights Legionnaires outbreak: Sugar Hill Project

Because of the current outbreak’s proximity to Sugar Hill Project, the DOHMH ordered the building owners to clean and disinfect the cooling system – for a second time. The process reportedly was completed Oct. 5 – the day that the health department announced the outbreak.

According to that original statement, the DOHMH sampled 20 cooling towers within a mile radius to identify the source of the latest outbreak. Test results from 11 buildings spurred officials to order building owners to remediate their cooling towers.

Washington Heights Legionnaires outbreak hits 32; inquiry nears end

The Washington Heights Legionnaires outbreak – the neighborhood’s second of 2018 – has increased to 32 cases, with one death. The department of health said the investigation is nearing its end. Pictured: Sugar Hill Project (155th and St. Nicholas), which had a contaminated cooling tower that was the source of the first outbreak, over the summer.

Washington Heights Legionnaires outbreak: be cautious

Despite the DOHMH statement that the investigation is nearing a conclusion, residents, people employed in the area, and anyone traveling through the neighborhood should be alert. An infected person might not show immediate symptoms because of the disease’s long incubation period (up to two weeks).

While Legionnaires’ disease is not contagious, if it is caught early enough, it can be treated with antibiotics. Anyone with flu-like symptoms – difficulty breathing, cough, fever – should see their health-care provider out of an abundance of caution.

Washington Heights Legionnaires outbreak: difficult diagnosis

Because Legionnaires’ disease symptoms are similar to symptoms of pneumonia (lung infection) or influenza (flu), many cases go unreported. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that only about 5,000 of the estimated 25,000 annual cases in the U.S. are reported because of the disease’s nonspecific signs and symptoms.

Additionally, approximately 10 percent of people infected with Legionella bacteria (Legionella pneumophila) will die from the infection.

Washington Heights Legionnaires outbreak: symptoms

Early symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease generally include the following:

  • severe headaches
  • fever (104 degrees or higher)
  • chills
  • muscle pains
  • lack of appetite.

After a few days, symptoms can worsen to include:

  • chest pain, also called pleuritic chest pain, which is pain caused by inflamed lungs
  • difficulty breathing, also called dyspnea
  • coughing, which can bring up mucus or blood
  • gastrointestinal problems (diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, etc.)
  • mental agitation and confusion.

Washington Heights Legionnaires outbreak: more on disease

Legionnaires’ disease is a bacterial infection also called legionellosis and Legionella pneumonia. It is treatable with antibiotics, although if not diagnosed early, it can lead to severe complications – and can even become deadly.

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

People in high-risk categories
Anyone can contract Legionella, but those most susceptible to infection include:

  • people 50 or older
  • smokers, current and former
  • people with chronic lung disease, or COPD (most commonly, bronchitis or emphysema)
  • heavy drinkers of alcohol
  • people with a weakened immune system
  • organ-transplant recipients
  • anyone on a specific drug protocol, such as corticosteroids.

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

  • cooling towers of air conditioning systems
  • water systems, such as those used in hospitals, nursing homes, and hotels
  • large plumbing systems
  • hot-water tanks and heaters
  • bathroom showers and faucets
  • mist machines, like those in the produce sections of grocery stores
  • hand-held sprayers
  • swimming pools, hot tubs and whirlpools
  • physical-therapy equipment
  • decorative fountains.