BY JAMES FARRELL
Twelve cases of Legionnaires’ disease have been identified in Flushing, prompting the city’s Department of Health (DOH) to investigate cooling towers within the affected area as a potential source, officials announced on Tuesday.
The cases were diagnosed between Oct. 10 and 19, and the Health Department identified the cases as a “community cluster,” said the DOH’s commissioner for disease control, Demetre Daskalakis, at a press conference with Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing).
The ages of the affected individuals range from 30 to 80 years. Seven of the individuals have been released from the hospital and five are currently recovering in the hospital, but Daskalakis said the department expects they’ll be discharged soon and all are expected to survive. The DOH is investigating two other potential cases.
Daskalakis said that the DOH is being “precisely vague” about the location of the investigation zone, and would not disclose where in Flushing the incidents occurred.
“We’re not giving you streets; we’re not giving you a border because we don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, I live north of the area that they’re worried about, so I’m not going to worry about my cough and fever,’” he said. “So, we’d rather keep it a bit vague and say ‘the Flushing area.’”
He said that all 12 cases were found in residential environments and that individuals were experiencing flu-like symptoms—including fever, cough, chills, muscle aches, headache, fatigue, loss of appetite, confusion and diarrhea.
“The only thing they have in common is being [in Flushing],” Daskalakis said. “That’s why we’re looking at a cooling tower as a possible source for this infection, because they don’t have anything else that sort of pulls them together from an epidemiological perspective.”
Aside from paying attention to symptoms, Flushing residents should “go about business as usual,” Daskalakis said. He emphasized that the towers under investigation were not water towers but cooling towers, which cool down air-conditioning systems, and that it was safe to drink water and shower, but that residents should be attentive to their symptoms and see their doctors if they feel ill.
“Even though we are seeing increased activity in the area, it’s still going to be a rare event that someone gets Legionella,” he said.
Legionnaires’ disease is an illness caused by the bacterium Legionella, which often grows in cooling towers, plumbing systems, whirlpool spas, hot tubs, humidifiers and the condensers of large air-conditioning systems. It cannot be spread from person to person. Middle-age and older individuals—especially cigarette smokers or people with chronic lung disease or a weakened immune system—are especially at risk.
“As with our previous Legionnaires’ disease investigations, we are in the process of investigating the source of the cluster and are working with building owners in the area to rapidly test and clean cooling towers,” said Health Commissioner Mary Bassett.
Cooling towers in the area of concern were sampled and the DOH was waiting for preliminary results. The DOH will then increase chemicals within the cooling towers to kill the bacteria. If the DOH identifies towers that have viable (living) bacteria, the agency will inform the towers’ owners that they need to do a full remediation to drain and disinfect them.
In 2015, the City Council passed a law setting robust requirements to ensure that cooling towers are properly maintained to reduce the risk of Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks. Daskalakis said that there are ramifications for owners who fail to keep their cooling towers under compliance.
The DOH will organize a town hall with Koo to hear concerns. The date has not yet been determined.