Five more cases of Legionnaires' disease have been added to the Bronx outbreak that has claimed seven lives and sickened more than six dozen people in the last three weeks, Mayor de Blasio said Tuesday. The number of those killed stands at seven.
The mayor's briefing comes a day after the city announced an increase in the death toll and the number of cases at a packed town hall meeting at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, where hundreds of residents gathered to hear what state, city and local officials had to say about the deadly outbreak.
Eighty-six 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 Tuesday. That marked 40 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.
De Blasio said Tuesday the fact only five new cases were added to the outbreak total in the last day "suggests a reduction in the rate of increase and that is good news." He said authorities have identified the peak of the outbreak as July 30, and the daily rate of increase has reduced since then.
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; one at a shopping plaza; one at a Verizon office building and one at the Opera House Hotel. All have been decontaminated.
De Blasio said Tuesday officials believed they had identified the only sites that are causing the outbreak, and no additional cooling towers are believed to be contaminated.
Health Commissioner Mary Bassett said authorities are confident one of the five cooling towers that tested positive for Legionella is the primary source of the outbreak, though it will likely take weeks to confirm. Now that the contaminated sources have been remediated, she said, authorities expected to see the number of cases continue to go down.
"This is the largest outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that we are aware of in New York City," Bassett said Tuesday. "Although we will continue to see cases, we expect the case rate to decline and the number of cases to fall over the coming weeks."
She reiterated that the contaminated cooling towers have had no effect on the water in the Bronx, and that tap water remains entirely safe to drink.
The cases have been reported primarily in High Bridge, Morrisania, Hunts Point and Mott Haven since July 10, the Health Department said.
No additional deaths were reported Tuesday, a day after the city announced three more people had died in connection with the outbreak, bringing the total to seven. As word of three new deaths spread Monday, officials held a town hall to offer residents a forum to express their concerns and so those with knowledge of the situation could help disseminate information.
"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."
Both de Blasio and Bassett stressed last week 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.