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Teacher's Death Alone Not Enough to Spark Legionnaires' Probe, Mayor Says

By Murray Weiss | August 7, 2015 12:08pm | Updated on August 9, 2015 10:39pm
 James Rouse was the 'canary in a coal mine' for the Legionnaire's disease outbreak, his brother said.
James Rouse was the 'canary in a coal mine' for the Legionnaire's disease outbreak, his brother said.
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Family of James Rouse

THE BRONX — The city did not investigate the Legionnaires' disease death of a South Bronx public school teacher in April because no other victims surfaced then, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his health commissioner said Thursday.

"One death alone wouldn't necessarily spur a city investigation," de Blasio said in response to DNAinfo New York's story Thursday in which the family of music teacher James Rouse said the city "ignored" Rouse's April 30 death.

Had the city investigated the death of the 52-year-old music teacher at P.S. 325, which is located in the area of the current outbreak, the family believes the city might have prevented the worst Legionnaires' disease in city history that's killed 10 people and left roughly 100 sickened.

"My brother was the canary in the coal mine," said the victim's brother, John Rouse, a Suffolk County civil court judge and former prosecutor.

At a press conference Thursday, Health Commissioner Mary Bassett initially bristled when asked about how the DOH handled Rouse's death, and declined to comment citing patient confidentially.

But when pressed, she pointed out that there are between 200 and 300 cases each year of Legionnaires' disease in the city, but said "we institute outbreak investigations when we see a cluster."

The mayor jumped to support Bassett, saying "one death alone wouldn't necessarily spur" a probe. The city needs "a pattern to follow."

He quickly added, though, that, "we take every death seriously."

De Blasio and Bassett say the outbreak began July 12, and that the people who died were either elderly or had contributing medical issues.

But Rouse's family vigorously disagrees.

Rouse, a professional pianist who taught music to special needs children, fell ill at school, entered Beth Israel Hospital on April 22 and died April 30, despite assurances from doctors that he would recover.

His family says they repeatedly tried to get the city to probe his death, and remain incredulous that, despite their entreaties, did virtually nothing to unravel the mystery of how a 52-year-old teacher, who also ran marathons, could contract and die from Legionnaires'.

A spokesman for the Department of Education referred all questions to the Department of Health.

A Health Dept. spokesman said the agency learned of Rouse's illness April 29, the day before he died, from either Beth Israel Hospital or a laboratory.

The agency initially spoke with one of Rouse's sisters May 5.

The Dept. of Health "investigates every single case of Legionnaires' when it is reported to us," a spokesman said in a statement.

"We speak to either the patient or a close family to assess environmental exposures that could be the source of infection," he continued. "In this case we interviewed the patient's sister since the patient had unfortunately died before we able to speak with him. [There] were multiple conversations in the months that followed."

The "initial" inquiry did "not yield sufficient evidence" to warrant "an environmental assessment," the spokesman said. Proper protocols were followed. "An investigation was undertaken to identify sources of exposure. None could be identified."

But Patricia Rouse, an attorney and assistant counsel to Suffolk County, told "On The Inside" that the only questions the department's inspectors asked her were whether her brother had used a sauna or hot tub.

"When we said 'no,' they said there was nothing they could do, not even check the school or his home. They did not have the resources, unless there were other sick people turning up," said Patricia Rouse, noting that she never told the city she was a lawyer.

"My brother was gone, someone was dead, and they were saying no one was investigating,"Rouse continued.

"We kept calling them," she said. "We were begging them. Right up to a couple of weeks ago when all the others became infected."

John Rouse added that "a single death is a non-starter. It was us trying to get them to investigate."