Three more people have died of Legionnaires' disease in the Bronx in an outbreak that has claimed seven lives in total and hospitalized more than 60 people, the New York City Health Department said Monday as hundreds of residents met with health experts and state and city officials at a town hall meeting to get answers.
Eighty-one cases of the disease, a severe, often lethal, form of pneumonia spread through the air, have been reported in the south Bronx since July 10, city officials said. That's 23 new cases since Wednesday, when 46 cases were announced as health officials first discussed the outbreak. The seven patients who died had underlying health conditions, authorities said.
As word of new deaths spread Monday, Bronx residents packed a town hall meeting at the Bronx Museum of the Arts to hear what state, city and local officials, as well as health experts, had to say about the deadly outbreak.
"We are not at a level of panic, but anxiety is really high," Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said at the meeting.
Lines were out the door and at least 75 people had to stand outside because there was no room inside. Many were concerned about the growing number of dead. They also wanted to know what's being done to stop the spread of the disease.
"There's more questions than answers to this disease that's going around," South Bronx resident Renita Henry said. "I'm scared, yes, because it's right in my backyard."
Three people were released from the hospital Monday, bringing the total number of people discharged up to 28, according to the Health Department.
Officials announced the death of a fourth person on Saturday. The news came as two more Bronx buildings tested positive for the Legionella bacteria.
A Verizon office building at 117 E. 167th St. was the fourth location to test positive, according to Verizon spokesman John Bonomo. Streamline Plastic Co. at 2590 Park Ave. was the fifth location to test positive. Since the announcement, remediation and removal of the contaminants have been completed at both locations, officials said Monday. Verizon said that it would perform checks on all cooling systems at all its facilities in the Bronx.
"Over the weekend we did remediation, we decontaminated and everything got cleaned up today," Streamline Plastic Co. President Joe Bartner said, adding that the company looks to be back in operation on Tuesday.
The cases have been reported primarily in High Bridge, Morrisania, Hunts Point and Mott Haven since July 10, the Health Department said.
Legionnaires' disease is caused by exposure to the bacteria Legionella; in most cases, people are exposed to the bacteria by inhaling contaminated aerosols from cooling towers, hot tubs, showers and faucets or drinking water.
Twenty-two buildings have been visited as "disease detectives" hunt for the source of the outbreak, the city said Friday. Seventeen of those buildings have cooling towers -- five of those tested positive for Legionella, including one at Lincoln Hospital; one at Concourse Plaza, a shopping plaza; and one at the Opera House Hotel.
"Whatever's in the atmosphere gets pulled into the cooling tower, so there's a lot more dirt and debris and areas that organisms can grow in," Pete Stempkowski, of Clarity Water Technologies, said.
In addition to the Verizon location and plastic company, remediation has also been completed at the other three locations that tested positive: Lincoln Hospital, Concourse Plaza and the Opera House Hotel. The Department of Health said it resampled all sites Monday and would sample them again on Tuesday to make sure that the remediation was successful.
"The reason we sampled those towers is because those are the ones closest to where the people are getting sick," Dr. Jay Varma, of the Health Department, said. "We know with this disease it's not going to be from a cooling tower that's 10 miles away."
Mayor de Blasio and Health Commissioner Mary Bassett said at a briefing Thursday there was no evidence of contamination within Lincoln Hospital, and though the hospital confirmed it is treating patients with the disease, Bassett said no one -- neither patients nor employees -- contracted it at the facility.
Since the cases are widely dispersed — as in they're not clustered in one or two buildings —authorities do not believe the outbreak is connected to any contaminated drinking water, Health Commissioner Mary Bassett said at a news briefing Thursday.
"The water supply in the south Bronx remains entirely safe. We don't know the source of this outbreak, but in recent months we have seen outbreaks associated with cooling towers and that's why we're focusing on them," Bassett said. "We're testing every cooling tower we can find in the area."
Both de Blasio and Bassett stressed there was no concern for alarm.
"People have to understand that this is a disease that can be treated -- and can be treated well if caught early," de Blasio said Thursday. "The exception can be with folks who are already unfortunately suffering from health challenges, particularly immune system challenges. But for the vast majority of New Yorkers, if they were even exposed, this can be addressed very well and very quickly so long as they seek medical treatment."
Legionnaires' disease usually sets in two to 10 days after exposure to the bacteria and has symptoms similar to pneumonia, including shortness of breath, high fever, chills and chest pains. People with Legionnaires' also experience appetite loss, confusion, fatigue and muscle aches.
It cannot be spread person-to-person and those at highest risk for contracting the illness include the elderly, cigarette smokers, people with chronic lung or immune system disease and those receiving immunosuppressive drugs. Most cases can be treated successfully with antibiotics.
The Health Department urges anyone with symptoms to seek immediate medical attention.
An outbreak last hit the Bronx in December. Between then and January, 12 people in Co-op City contracted the potentially deadly disease. Officials said a contaminated cooling tower was likely linked to at least 75 percent of those cases. No one died in that outbreak.