Tensions Run High at Morris Park Legionnaires’ Town Hall

In an eerie repeat of events, residents gathered at a second town hall on the recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ in the Morris Park section. Anxious residents filled the room at Maestro’s Caterer’s as local politicians, representatives from Mayor de Blasio’s office, and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene workers spoke to people before the event even started.

Department of Health Commissioner, Doctor Mary T. Bassett urged residents to watch elderly family members and neighbors for signs of Legionnaires’ disease. Symptoms of the disease are similar to pneumonia in that people come down with a fever, chills, muscle aches, and loss of appetite. Similar to the town hall in the South Bronx this past summer, Bassett stressed that drinking water was safe and that Legionnaires’ is not contagious.

Doctor Bassett explained that Legionnaires’ spreads from mist that escapes from an infected cooling tower on a roof and can spread down onto the sidewalk level but does not actually contaminate the building. She praised the new legislation that was passed in August to mandate the registration and cleaning of cooling towers, “We were able to test cooling towers in a shorter time period because all of these towers were already registered per the new legislation.” However, Bassett went on to admit that, “All of the towers found infected in this area have been compliant with the August mandate but they were still found with the Legionella bacteria.”

Bill Estelle, Executive Director for the New York City Department of Education, explained that the cooling towers at Lehman High School are cleaned every two weeks but they still tested positive for Legionella bacteria.

Taking some cues from the previous outbreak, Daniel Kass, Deputy Commissioner for the DOHMH, announced that the Department of Health will partner up with the Department of Housing to launch a more pro-active inspection process of cooling towers throughout the Bronx. In addition to this, a set of detailed rules will be published soon for building owners to follow along with a comment period so that owners can form maintenance plans.

Since Thursday night, officials say that one person has died and 13 total cases have been reported in the neighborhood. Eight of the patients remain hospitalized, and four have been discharged.

While community residents waited anxiously to ask questions, there was some tension between elected officials and representatives from the Health Department. Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj criticized the Health Department for their delay in notifying elected officials of an outbreak when testing for Legionnaires’ was already occurring on September 25th, stating that, “We, the elected officials, found out about the outbreak the same day that everyone else did (September 28th) despite the fact that testing for Legionnaires’ was happening prior to that.”

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. questioned why Legionnaires’ disease has mostly effected the Bronx and if cooling towers were the only culprit in the outbreak. Diaz Jr. pointed out a family friend from the audience stating, “Two weeks ago I attended a wake in Brooklyn for a 47 year old who died because of Legionnaires’.” Later that night, an attendee expressed her frustrations on not receiving information or having questions answered when her father died from Legionnaires’ this past summer in Brooklyn.

Also in attendance, and asking similar questions on the outbreak, was Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, Senator Jeff Klein, Public Advocate Letitia James, Councilman James Vacca, and representatives from the Department of Health and Department of Education.

Over 40 residents lined up on both sides of the packed room to ask questions ranging from the safety of their children attending Lehman High School to the effectiveness of the current system in place that regulates the cleaning of cooling towers. Many residents demanded that other towers, such as water towers, should also be regulated with mandated cleaning.

The Department of Health have not determined a source for the Morris Park outbreak.

In response to the outbreak, Assemblyman Gjonaj and Senator Klein partnered with ProHealth Urgent Care to offer free screenings of Legionnaires’. The testing is available to senior citizens and the uninsured who reside in the 10461 or 10462 zip codes. Along with screening for the disease, ProHealth Urgent Care will also provide treatment for anyone found with positive results.

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