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Anxiety Runs High at Packed Legionnaires' Disease Meeting

By Eddie Small | August 4, 2015 7:45am
 Health officials worked to educate Bronx residents about Legionnaires' disease at a town hall meeting on Monday night.
Health officials worked to educate Bronx residents about Legionnaires' disease at a town hall meeting on Monday night.
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DNAinfo/Eddie Small

SOUTH BRONX — The Legionnaires’ disease outbreak that's killed seven people and infected 81 more has Bronx residents anxious — and packed a meeting discussing the crisis Monday.

“We’re not at the level of panic,” said Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who attended the meeting at Bronx Museum of the Arts, where a line of concerned attendees stretched out the door.

“But anxiety is really high.”

Health Department Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett and other officials spoke to the overflowing room on topics ranging from how the disease spreads to the cause of the outbreak — which they believe has been tracked down to cooling towers in the borough.

They stressed that it was still safe to drink the city’s tap water and be in buildings that had been infected, while repeatedly urging anyone with symptoms to visit a doctor immediately.

"We have people who are waiting a week, with symptoms, before they seek medical care," Bassett said.

"Now, we know that this bacteria can grow in your body for up to 10 days before you have any symptoms. We can’t do anything about that. That’s part of the biology of this infection.

"But that seven days, when you have symptoms and then you wait to seek medical care, we can do something about that."

Symptoms of Legionnaires' disease include a fever, cough, chills and muscle aches, according to the Health Department.

The city has so far linked the outbreak to cooling towers at five buildings in the South Bronx: Lincoln Hospital, Concourse Plaza, the Opera House Hotel, a Verizon office building and Streamline Plastic Co.

Health Department officials said they are confident that these are the sites where the outbreak originated and there are no current plans to inspect additional towers.

However, they have not been able to definitively link each case of Legionnaires' disease to the infected sites yet.

"We need more data to link these cooling towers to patients," Bassett said.

She predicted the city would start seeing a smaller number of people infected with Legionnaires' disease in about a week, as she believes they are now seeing cases where patients had already been infected with the illness but had not yet exhibited symptoms.

Multiple people at the meeting addressed the need for a better and more systemic way to inspect possible sources of Legionnaires' disease going forward, an idea that had the strong support of elected officials and the Health Department.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement that legislation to deal with this issue and help prevent future outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease would be announced this week.

"The comprehensive package will address inspections, new recommended action in the case of positive tests and sanctions for those who fail to comply with new standards," he said.

Some Bronxites said they attended the meeting to learn more about the basics of the illness and what has been happening in the South Bronx since July 10, when the outbreak began.

"I need to know what's going on," said South Bronx resident Johanna Mack. "What's causing it, where it's coming from, what they're going to do about it?"

Others were more critical of the city for not acting earlier to prevent the outbreak, especially given that The Bronx had dealt with one earlier in the year.

"We had it in Co-op City,"  said a person who did not give his name. "Nothing was done."

Dr. Jay Varma, deputy commissioner of the Health Department, stressed that the neighborhood where the outbreak most recently occurred had no impact on the city's response.

"It wasn’t a question of whether it was The Bronx or the Upper East Side," he said.

"It was a question of people are sick, and we need to figure out what’s going on."