The death toll from the Bronx’s outbreak of Legionnaires disease has climbed from four to seven as city health officials continue to assure anxious residents they have the health crisis under control.
“We are taking this very seriously,” Mary Bassett, the city health commissioner, told the hundreds who were gathered at the Bronx Museum of the Arts for a town hall meeting Monday.
So far, 81 people have been infected, 28 of whom were treated and discharged, according to the most recent Health Department update issued Monday.
All of the victims who succumbed to the severe form of pneumonia were older and had other health ailments, according to the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
There have been 2,400 cases nationwide this year.
City health honchos believe the source is bacteria in cooling systems, which can release mist, in buildings concentrated in the South Bronx.
Officials said they have inspected 17 cooling towers at buildings in the area for the bacteria, called Legionella, and five tested positive: Lincoln Hospital, Concourse Plaza, the Opera House Hotel, a Verizon office building and Streamline Plastic Co.
Kiara Gutierrez, 23, was worried about her cousin, Maria Rodriguez, 54, who was bedridden with the disease for nearly a month.
“It’s been really emotional and depressing,” Gutierrez said outside Lincoln Hospital. “We are going through a lot right now.”
Rodriguez works as a housekeeper at the Opera Hotel, one of the five contaminated locations.
“She was saying she didn’t feel well,” Gutierrez recalled. “At first they thought she had walking pneumonia. She had a high fever, difficulty breathing and water in her lungs.”
At the town hall, Jay Varma, the Health Department’s deputy commissioner for disease control, emphasized that the disease is not passed from person to person and that most people aren’t at risk.
“This is still a pretty rare disease,” he said.
Mayor de Blasio said new legislation would be announced this week that “will address inspections, new recommended action in the case of positive tests and sanctions for those who fail to comply with new standards.”
“Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks have become far too common over the past 10 years, and the city will respond not by addressing an outbreak as it occurs but with a new plan to help prevent these outbreaks from happening in the first place,” he said.
The Health Department said remediation at the five towers has been completed.
That was little consolation to Bronx resident Debra Meyers.
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. urged the city to do more to stop the disease.
“I’m still concerned. What about all the other buildings in the Bronx?” she said.
City Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson (D-Bronx), chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee, proposed a measure requiring annual maintenance checks of cooling systems.
“We’re not at the level of panic, but anxiety is very high,” said Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.
He urged the city to do more to prevent future outbreaks.
“What we cannot do is keep responding and responding and reacting,” he said. “What we have to do is be proactive and prevent this from happening in the future.”
Drinking water, public pools and fountains are safe, according to officials.
Symptoms of the disease include cough, shortness of breath, high fever, muscle aches and headaches that start two to 14 days after exposure.
Most cases can be treated successfully with antibiotics. Healthy people usually recover, but hospitalization is typically required.