Latest Legionnaires’ Outbreak in the Bronx Kills 1 and Sickens 18

A growing cluster of Legionnaires’ disease cases in the Bronx has resulted in the death of one person and illness in 18 others, eight of whom are currently hospitalized, the New York City Health Department said Wednesday.

The cases appear to be linked to four water cooling towers on top of buildings in the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx, where officials said they found Legionella pneumophila, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease.

“While most people exposed to the bacteria do not get sick, Legionnaires’ disease can cause severe illness or be fatal for those at higher risk, including people with pre-existing chronic health issues,” said the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, in a statement. “That’s why it’s crucial that you seek health care as soon as you experience flulike symptoms.”

Outbreaks of the disease happen with some regularity in New York City, where aging water cooling tanks on top of buildings can become reservoirs for the bacteria. The disease is treatable by antibiotics if caught early enough.

The last known death in a cluster of cases was in 2018, and was linked to an outbreak of 18 cases in Upper Manhattan.

A 2018 health department analysis showed that between 200 and 700 cases were reported in the city each year, and that the rate was rising. Large clusters of cases, however, were uncommon, happening on average once or twice per year, the health department said.

In 2015, the city experienced its largest outbreak, when 138 people were sickened and 16 died of the disease in the Bronx. Afterward, the city instituted several prevention efforts, including a requirement that building owners test their water supply regularly for the bacteria.

But the disease persists — last year, a cluster of 18 cases in Harlem was linked, at least in part, to an infected water cooling tower at Harlem Hospital, a city public hospital.

With this latest outbreak, city health inspectors have been following up with residents to warn them of the cluster and ordered the owners of the towers to disinfect them.

On Wednesday, the health department called on New Yorkers with flulike symptoms, cough, fever or difficulty breathing who live in the Highbridge area to contact a physician immediately. Symptoms can also resemble other types of pneumonia, causing chills and muscle aches.

The disease is named after an outbreak linked to an American Legion convention in 1976 at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia. More than 2,000 Legionnaires attended, and afterward, 182 got sick and 29 died. The bacteria was later discovered growing in the hotel’s air conditioning system.

Legionnaires’ disease is more common in warm weather, when conditions are favorable for Legionella growth in cooling towers, whirlpool spas, hot tubs, humidifiers, hot water tanks and evaporative condensers of large air-conditioning systems, the health department said. It is caused by breathing infected water vapor and is not transmitted from person to person.