Washington Heights is battling Legionnaires’ disease for the second time in 2018: Officials for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) said Friday that eight residents were infected within a five-day span.
All eight victims – whose ages range from younger than 40 to older than 80 – required hospitalization. Only one patient has been discharged from the hospital.
Information on the genders and conditions of the patients has not been released.
Washington Heights: 27 ill over the summer
In Washington Heights’ first incident of the year, 27 people contracted Legionnaires’ disease in an outbreak over the summer. One victim died.
Acting DOHMH commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot said in a news release: “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.”
The investigation into the first outbreak, which first made headlines July 11, pinpointed a cooling tower at the Sugar Hill Project in Harlem as the cause for the illnesses, which infected residents of primarily Washington Heights but also Hamilton Heights. Specimen analysis matched strains of Legionella – the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease – from Sugar Hill Project’s cooling tower with six patients from the outbreak.
Washington Heights: cooling towers
Because of its proximity to the latest outbreak, the DOHMH has ordered Sugar Hill Project owners to again clean and disinfect the building’s cooling system. The Sugar Hill Project is located at 898 St. Nicholas Avenue and West 155th Street.
The DOHMH said it has sampled 20 cooling towers within a mile radius to identify the cause for the latest incidents. Owners of buildings with cooling towers that test positive for Legionella will be ordered to increase their efforts to eliminate the potentially deadly bacteria.
The DOHMH will conduct a community meeting at 6 p.m. Monday at the Jackie Robinson Recreation Center at 85 Bradhurst Avenue to answer questions and provide updates on this latest situation.
Washington Heights: warning
In a statement to the public, Barbot said: “Although the risk is very low, we urge residents and people who work in the area to take precautions. Legionnaires’ disease is not contagious, and (it) can be treated with common antibiotics if caught early. Anyone with flu-like symptoms – such as cough, fever or difficulty breathing – should seek medical attention immediately.”
If you live, work or travel through the area, you should remain vigilant. An infected person might not yet present symptoms because of the disease’s two-week incubation period.
If you are feeling flu-like symptoms, you should see your health-care provider immediately out of an abundance of caution.
Washington Heights: symptoms
Legionnaires’ disease symptoms are similar to those of other forms of pneumonia (lung infection) or even flu, which is why so many cases go unreported. Early symptoms can include:
- chills and fever, which can be 104 degrees or higher
- severe headaches
- muscle pains
- loss of appetite.
After the first few days, symptoms can worsen to include:
- chest pain when breathing, which is called pleuritic chest pain and is caused by inflamed lungs
- shortness of breath (dyspnea)
- coughing, which can bring up mucus and blood
- diarrhea, nausea and vomiting; about one-third of all Legionnaires cases result in gastrointestinal problems
- mental confusion and agitation.
(Note: There is a mild form of Legionnaires’ disease called Pontiac fever, which can produce symptoms such as fever, chills, headaches, and muscle aches. Pontiac fever doesn’t infect the lungs, however, and symptoms usually go away within two to five days.)
Washington Heights: difficult self-diagnosis
An estimated 25,000 cases of pneumonia due to Legionella bacteria (Legionella pneumophila) occur every year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, only 5,000 cases are reported because of the disease’s nonspecific signs and symptoms.
Additionally, about 10 percent of patients infected with Legionnaires’ disease will die from the infection.
Legionella bacteria are contracted by inhaling microscopic water droplets (vapor or mist). The bacteria grow best in warm water, and they are found primarily in human-made environments.
Washington Heights: more on Legionella
Most healthy people exposed to Legionella bacteria do not get sick, but anyone can become ill from the bacteria. People most susceptible to infection include:
- anyone 50 or older
- smokers, current and former
- anyone with chronic lung disease or COPD (most commonly bronchitis or emphysema)
- heavy drinkers of alcohol
- anyone with a weakened immune system
- organ-transplant recipients
- anyone on a specific drug protocol, such as corticosteroids.
Legionnaires’ disease clusters and outbreaks have been linked to numerous sources, such as:
- cooling towers of air conditioning systems
- large plumbing systems
- water systems, like those used in hospitals, nursing homes, and hotels
- hot-water tanks and heaters
- bathroom showers and faucets
- swimming pools, hot tubs and whirlpools
- physical-therapy equipment
- mist machines, like those in the produce sections of grocery stores
- hand-held sprayers
- decorative fountains.