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Source of UES Legionnaires' Cluster Still a Mystery to Health Officials

By Shaye Weaver | June 20, 2017 12:03pm
 It's likely the bacteria was spread through vapor in the air, but officials don't know from where.
It's likely the bacteria was spread through vapor in the air, but officials don't know from where.
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Kateryna Kon/Shutterstock

LENOX HILL — City Health officials still don't know the source of the latest cluster of Legionnaires' disease that killed a woman and hospitalized six others last week, though they believe it was likely spread through water vapor spread through the air.

Between June 5 to June 15, the bacteria killed a woman in her 90s and hospitalized six others.

The Department of Health said that 116 cooling towers within half-kilometer of where the cluster occurred had been tested, issuing a warning to the public Friday to watch out for flu-like symptoms.

But as of Monday night, it was still unclear where specifically the contamination originated, according to Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett, who held a panel discussion at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House.

 Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett, holding microphone, said the Health Department won't know the source of the outbreak until test results come back in about two weeks.
Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett, holding microphone, said the Health Department won't know the source of the outbreak until test results come back in about two weeks.
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Barry Schneider

Samples from more than 100 cooling towers were taken on Friday, but it takes roughly two weeks for results to return, officials said. It seems likely that the bacteria that causes the disease was spread from mist that the cooling towers emitted and not drinking or bathing water, they noted.

However, "[the health department] may never identify the source," Bassett acknowledged. 

None of the seven people who contracted the illness had anything in common except for their geography, but Bassett would not further specify the affected area other than call it Lenox Hill.

“I don’t want anyone to think that there’s any border over which water mist won’t come,” she explained.

Health officials tried to reassure community members by saying that no one else has contracted the disease and that they can still drink, bathe and cook with water. All medical facilities on the East Side have also been informed, they added.

Officials reminded people not to ignore symptoms like headache, fever and coughing, as well as fatigue, loss of appetite, confusion and diarrhea, noting that symptoms appear two to 10 days after “significant exposure” to the Legionella bacteria.

The city receives an average of 200 to 400 reports of the disease per year, officials said.

This is the latest case of Legionnaires' disease, after an outbreak was discovered within East Harlem's 23rd Precinct stationhouse

The largest outbreak happened in 2015 in the South Bronx, killing 12 people and sickening more than 120.

That outbreak was traced to 15 cooling towers, prompting new legislation from the city that requires cooling towers to be tested for the bacteria quarterly and for the Health Department to do annual surprise inspections.