Sick with Legionnaires’ disease?
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For the second time this year, health officials have identified the Sugar Hill Project as the source for a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in upper Manhattan in which 32 people have been sickened, and one victim has died.

The Harlem high-rise also was the source for an outbreak over the summer in which 27 people became ill. One victim also died during that outbreak.

Officials confirmed this is the first time that a single cooling tower has been linked to two separate Legionnaires incidents in the city.

“Sampling conducted at the start of the investigation revealed that Legionella bacteria had returned quickly despite a comprehensive remediation, suggesting that there was potentially something unique in this cooling tower system.,” said Dr. Oxiris Barbot, acting health commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH).

Sugar Hill Project shut down its cooling system on Oct. 18, and officials said it will remain out of commission until “management demonstrates that it has remediated it and can operate the tower safely,” Barbot said in a DOHMH statement.

Upon receiving approval to recommission the cooling system, building management will be required to provide weekly samples to the city.

Sugar Hill Project, which opened in 2015, is a 13-story, 191,500-square-foot, mixed-use development located in Manhattan’s historic Sugar Hill district of Harlem. It has 124 affordable housing units for low-income families, including 25 residences for the formerly homeless. The building also features the 17,600-square foot Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling on the ground floor, as well as an 11,600-square-foot, early-childhood education center on the second floor.

Sugar Hill Project is located at 898 St. Nicholas Avenue at West 155th Street.

Tower design at fault?
City officials will investigate the design of the tower, convene a panel of water-system engineers to advise building owners on designing safer towers, and introduce stricter cooling-tower regulations, due to the anomaly of the second outbreak.

Mark Levine, New York City Council member and chairperson of the Council’s Committee on Health, said the DOHMH needs to do more to prevent “repeat contamination.”

“From the moment we learned of a second Legionnaires cluster at the same location in upper Manhattan, I began asking pressing questions: Are there defects in cooling-tower equipment which make them vulnerable to repeat contamination?” Levine was quoted in a statement. “How long does intense monitoring last after a tower is found to be contaminated once?

“Five weeks — and one oversight hearing — after Lower Washington Heights was hit with a second deadly cluster, we still don’t have adequate answers to these questions. DOHMH needs to move immediately to put in place better protocols to prevent this kind of repeat contamination.”

What is Legionnaires’ disease?

Legionnaires’ disease – also called legionellosis and Legionella pneumonia – is a severe type of pneumonia or lung infection. The bacterial infection is treatable with antibiotics, although if it is not diagnosed early, it can lead to severe complications and even become deadly. It is not contagious; that is, it cannot be passed from person to person.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 25,000 cases of pneumonia due to Legionella bacteria (Legionella pneumophila) occur yearly in the U.S. Only 5,000 cases are reported, however, because of its nonspecific signs and symptoms.

One in 10 patients infected with Legionnaires’ will die from the disease.

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.

People at increased risk
Most people exposed to Legionella do not get sick, but people 50 years old and older – especially those who smoke and have chronic lung conditions – are at a higher risk.

Other people more susceptible to infection include:

  • heavy drinkers of alcoholic beverages
  • people with compromised immune systems
  • recipients of organ transplants
  • individuals who are on specific drug protocols (corticosteroids, to name one).

After Legionnaires’ disease has been diagnosed, hospitalization is often necessary. In the most severe Legionnaires cases, complications can include respiratory failure, kidney failure, septic shock, or even death.

Pontiac fever
A mild form of Legionnaires’ disease — known as Pontiac fever — may produce signs and symptoms including a fever, chills, headaches and muscle pains. Pontiac fever, however, doesn’t infect the lungs, and symptoms usually clear within two to five days.