The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) is investigating a cluster of Legionnaires’ disease illnesses at Co-Op City in the Bronx, including the death of an elderly resident.

Co-Op City, located in the Baychester section of the borough, is the largest cooperative housing development in the world. It has 15,372 apartments in 35 high-rise buildings and seven townhouse groups with approximately 50,000 residents. It is situated at the intersection of Interstate 95 and the Hutchinson River Parkway and is part of Bronx Community District 10.

The three cases occurred in three connected buildings at the complex within the past year; the first case was reported last year, while two others occurred within the past 60 days. Had the illnesses occurred within a six-month period, health officials would categorize it as an “outbreak” instead of a cluster.

All three people who became ill had conditions that increased their prospects of catching Legionnaires’ disease. The two residents who survived their illnesses have been released from the hospital, according to the health department.

Neither the name of the deceased has been released, nor when their illness occurred.

“Residents of this building who are over 50 or have underlying medical conditions should avoid showering until the investigation is completed,” the DOHMH warned in a statement. The statement included information that said tap water is safe to drink.

The DOHMH will test the building’s plumbing to see if a common source of Legionella bacteria can be located. (Legionella is the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease.) The three buildings where the illnesses occurred do not have a cooling tower but share the same plumbing system.

A history of Legionnaires’

Between December 2014 and January 2015, there were eight cases of Legionnaires’ disease at Co-Op City. Those illnesses were linked to a cooling tower infected with Legionella bacteria. Seven of the eight people infected lived in different buildings.

At that time, Co-Op City’s management company, Riverbay Corporation, paid a chemical treatment company $200,000 to disinfect that water with chlorine and clean the tower to eliminate Legionella from the system.

In 2012 and 2013, two residents in Building 27 of the housing development were sickened with Legionnaires’, which they were believed to have contracted through contaminated shower heads. Tenants did not learn of those illnesses until early 2014, angering many of the residents. Testing, however, did not indicate the existence of Legionella, which is why residents were never told, according to Riverbay officials.

In 2015, cooling towers were responsible for an outbreak in the Bronx that sickened 133 people and killed 16, making it the largest outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in New York City history.

Residents, visitors to, and employees of Co-Op City who have recently suffered from or are currently exhibiting pneumonia- or flu-like symptoms (see below) should seek immediate medical attention from their primary health-care provider. They should also contact the DOHMH to report the illness.

Legionnaires’ info

Legionnaires’ disease is similar to other types of pneumonia. Symptoms can resemble those of flu, such as:

  • cough
  • shortness of breath
  • fever
  • muscle aches
  • headaches
  • gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Who is most at risk?
Anyone can become ill from Legionella, but those most susceptible to infection include:

  • people 50 years of age or older
  • smokers, current and former
  • heavy drinkers of alcoholic beverages
  • people with chronic lung disease
  • people with compromised immune systems
  • recipients of organ transplants
  • individuals who are on specific drug protocols (corticosteroids, to name one).

What exactly is Legionnaires’?
Legionnaires’ disease – also called legionellosis and Legionella pneumonia – is a severe type of pneumonia (lung infection). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 25,000 cases of pneumonia due to Legionella bacteria (Legionella pneumophila) occur in the U.S. annually. However, only 5,000 cases are reported because of its nonspecific signs and symptoms.

Ten percent of those who become infected with Legionnaires’ disease will die from the infection.

Legionella bacteria are contracted by inhaling microscopic water droplets, usually in the form of mist or vapor. The bacteria, which grow best in warm water, are found primarily in human-made environments.

Where do Legionella live?
Outbreaks have been linked to a number of sources, such as:

  • large plumbing systems
  • showers and faucets
  • hot-water tanks and heaters
  • swimming pools
  • hot tubs and whirlpools
  • decorative fountains
  • mist machines and hand-held sprayers
  • equipment used in physical therapy
  • water systems, such as those used in hospitals, nursing homes, and hotels
  • the cooling towers of air conditioning systems.