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Death Toll From Legionnaires' Disease Outbreak Rises to 12, City Says

By  Eddie Small Ben Fractenberg and Jeff Mays | August 10, 2015 2:25pm 

 Mayor Bill de Blasio gives an update in City Hall about the Legionnaires' disease outbreak in The Bronx, Aug. 10, 2015.
Mayor Bill de Blasio gives an update in City Hall about the Legionnaires' disease outbreak in The Bronx, Aug. 10, 2015.
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Flickr/nycmayorsoffice

SOUTH BRONX — The death toll in the worst outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in New York City history has risen to 12, and the number of people infected has gone up to 113, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced at a press conference Monday afternoon.

The city also identified two additional sites that were infected with the bacteria: a Department of Homeless Services intake facility at 151 East 151st St. and the Daughters of Jacob Nursing Home at 1160 Teller Ave.

At a separate press conference held at the same time, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that state inspectors had found three additional sites infected with legionella that were outside of the impact zone. He did not have specific addresses for the sites yet.

Despite the rise in deaths and cases, de Blasio maintained that the outbreak was tapering off, noting that no one had become sick since Aug. 3.

He also outlined legislation designed to prevent similar outbreaks from happening in the future.

The proposal would require all existing cooling towers to be registered with the Department of Buildings within 60 days of the law's passage and to be inspected and tested on a quarterly basis.

Building owners will also be required to develop a maintenance plan for their cooling towers, and if any towers test positive for the bacteria, then the owner will have to clean and disinfect the system in accordance with regulations from the Department of Health.

"Any failure to comply will be considered a major violation and will carry a significant penalty," said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

The law would also require the Department of Health and DOB to put together an annual report that includes information about compliance with the law.

The legislation should pass on Thursday, according to Mark-Viverito.

Officials identified a total of 39 buildings in the impacted area of the South Bronx with cooling towers, but de Blasio said the city was very confident that the outbreak originated from one of the original five infected sites: Lincoln Hospital, Concourse Plaza, the Opera House Hotel, Streamline Plastic Co. and a Verizon office building.

Out of the 39 buildings, 12 tested positive for legionella and 22 tested negative. Results are still pending for five buildings.

All sites in the South Bronx with cooling towers are being disinfected regardless of whether or not they test positive, according to New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett.

The mayor said that the city has had to create a response to the outbreak from scratch because there was no "playbook" on the federal, state or city level about how to deal with this.

"All three levels of government have not encountered this dynamic," said de Blasio.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said he was pleased with the proposed legislation.

"Today’s announcement is a great first step towards developing a system of regular inspections for cooling towers and other infrastructure that could breed the legionella bacteria," he said in a statement.

Cuomo, at his press conference, declined to critique the city's response to the Legionnaires' disease outbreak but harshly criticized building owners who had not taken the state up on its offer to provide their properties with free testing for legionella bacteria, saying that their refusal to act could leave them facing legal consequences.

"If building owners are not going to take it on themselves to do the right thing and take corrective action, then the state will," he said.

He also said that he would seek to create regulatory standards statewide to prevent such outbreaks and was not familiar with the city’s legislative proposal.

“I do want to have a statewide protocol,” he said. “I don’t want to have different protocols in different cities so if you own a building in Albany you do one thing, if you own a building in New York City you do something else."

Janet Stout, director of Special Pathogens Laboratory in Pittsburgh and an associate professor of research at the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, has studied Legionnaires' disease for 30 years and called the idea of legislation from the state and the pending City Council legislation "unprecedented."

"This action on the part of the state and the city to enact this legislation is unprecedented in the United States," she said. "There is no other city of this size that has these requirements."

Cuomo acknowledged that the state’s actions had been "aggressive" but said that the severity of the outbreak required such a response.

"It was a very dramatic action by the state," he said, "and I think we all agree it was exactly what was called for."

Despite such actions taken by the city and state, borough residents say they still feel anxious about the outbreak.

"A lot of people are scared," said Bronxite Carlos Pabon. "Some people don't want to walk in front of the [Opera House] Hotel because they can feel the air conditioning from the street when the doors open. They cross the street to pass it. It's crazy."

Others were less concerned.

"My building doesn't have a cooling tower, and that's the only place I've been to," said Lucy Padron, who lives on 145th Street. "So I'm not scared."

Additional reporting by Anton K. Nilsson