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Attorneys Elliot Olsen of Minneapolis and Scott Harford of Manhattan have filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Manhattan woman who was sickened during last year’s second Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Washington Heights.

The lawsuit is the first concerning the two Washington Heights outbreaks, which claimed two lives, sickened almost 60, and hospitalized more than 50.

Mr. Harford’s office filed the complaint Thursday Feb. 14 in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of New York, naming three defendants:

  • Broadway Housing Communities, Inc.
  • Broadway Housing Development Fund Company, Inc.
  • Broadway Sugar Hill Housing Development Fund Company, Inc.

According to the complaint, Vivian Weeks was infected with Legionella bacteria in late September while visiting the Church of the Intercession (550 West 155th Street). In early October, Ms. Weeks developed symptoms that included shortness of breath, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, difficulty breathing, body aches, and fever, and on Oct. 5, she was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital. During her extended stay, she was diagnosed with Legionella pneumonia (Legionnaires’ disease), and she continues to experience complications from the disease.

Washington Heights outbreaks:
Sugar Hill Project pinpointed

In early October, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) began investigating an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease cases in the lower Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan – the second outbreak to affect the area in 2018. That outbreak produced 32 illnesses; 30 victims were hospitalized, and one died.

The DOHMH investigation found that clinical specimens of Legionella from patients matched the strain of Legionella found in the cooling tower at the Sugar Hill Project (898 St. Nicholas Avenue), which is less than a quarter-mile from the Church of the Intercession.

“After a comprehensive investigation, the Health Department has identified the cooling tower at the Sugar Hill Project as the likely source,” said Dr. Oxiris Barbot, who was then-acting health commissioner of the DOHMH. (Dr. Barbot has since been elevated to commissioner.)

The complaint filed by Olsen and Harford states that the defendants “did not warn area residents and visitors of the risk of contracting Legionnaires’ disease by exposure to the building’s cooling tower.”

The DOHMH started monitoring the Sugar Hill Project after the first outbreak last July and August, when 27 area residents were sickened, 25 were hospitalized, and one died. The DOHMH investigation also pinpointed the Sugar Hill Project cooling tower as the “most likely” source for that outbreak.

It was the first time that one cooling tower had been linked to two separate outbreaks in the same year, health officials said at the time.

“DOHMH needs to move immediately to put in place better protocols to prevent this kind of repeat contamination,” NYC City Council member Mark Levine said.

Washington Heights outbreaks:
Legionnaires information

Legionnaires’ disease – sometimes called legionellosis or Legionella pneumonia – is a severe type of pneumonia or lung infection caused by Legionella bacteria, or Legionella pneumophila.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that about 25,000 Americans are sickened yearly with Legionnaires, and about 2,500 victims will die. However, only 5,000 cases are reported because of the disease’s nonspecific signs and symptoms.

Legionella bacteria are usually contracted by inhaling microscopic water droplets (mist or vapor). Legionella grow best in warm water, and are primarily found in human-made environments.

Multiple sources have been proven to be conducive to the growth of Legionella:

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

Disease symptoms
Legionnaires’ disease is similar to other types of pneumonia, and symptoms can even resemble those of influenza (flu), which is why it often goes under-reported. Early symptoms generally include:

  • severe headaches
  • muscle aches
  • suppressed appetite
  • fever (104 degrees or higher) and chills.

Symptoms can then worsen to include:

  • pleuritic chest pain (pain caused by inflamed lungs)
  • dyspnea (difficulty breathing)
  • cough, which can produce blood and mucus
  • gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting (about one-third of Legionnaires cases produce these symptoms)
  • mental agitation and confusion.

About 10 percent of people infected with Legionella will die from the infection.

People at greatest risk
Anyone can develop Legionnaires’ disease, but people who are most susceptible include:

  • people 50 years old or older
  • smokers, current and former
  • people with suppressed immune systems
  • heavy drinkers of alcoholic beverages
  • people with chronic lung disease
  • organ-transplant recipients
  • people on specific drug protocols (corticosteroids, for example).