Anita Long has lived in the South Bronx for nearly 30 years and is deeply involved in her community. She's a member of Bronx Community Board 4 and a housing activist with a local tenant advocacy group known as CASA. After her retirement from Verizon last year, she was planning to buy an apartment in the borough this spring.
But after contracting Legionnaires’ disease in May and spending about three weeks in the hospital, she said she is now considering moving out of the city.
“I'm afraid,” Long, 65, told Gothamist, adding she still experiences shortness of breath. “I feel like I'm a hostage right here in my own apartment. Afraid to go out. Afraid to do the things that I've normally been doing.”
Long is one of three Bronx residents suing the Doe Fund, the nonprofit owner of a relatively new building on Jerome Avenue that’s been linked to a recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease — in which 28 New Yorkers were hospitalized and two died.
Long and another plaintiff who said he got sick in the outbreak filed a suit against the Doe Fund in the Bronx Supreme Court last week. The complaint alleged that the housing nonprofit was negligent in its building maintenance, causing physical, emotional, and economic losses. Another alleged victim filed a similar lawsuit against the Doe Fund in June.
Legionnaires’ disease is a severe form of pneumonia caused by Legionella bacteria, which can grow and spread in buildings’ cooling towers, hot water tanks and other parts of their water systems. Those who are over 50, smoke, or have chronic lung disease or diabetes are among those most at risk, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The most recent data brief on the disease from the New York City Health Department covers 2007 through 2017. During those years, the incidence of Legionnaires’ nearly doubled, from 2.3 cases per 100,000 residents in 2007 to 4.3 per 100,000 in 2017. The Bronx had the highest age-adjusted case rate among the five boroughs during most of those years. This data set also showed that Black New Yorkers and neighborhoods with higher poverty levels were disproportionately impacted by the disease.
After testing samples from cooling towers in the Highbridge neighborhood where the outbreak occurred, the New York City Health Department said in mid-June that it had matched the Legionella strain found in the Doe Fund’s building with the strain found in two of the patients affected by the outbreak. The city said at the time that the building owner had complied with orders to immediately disinfect the cooling tower and conduct additional remediation and was working with the Health Department on a long-term management plan.
The Doe Fund did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuits. The building in question was a recent addition to the neighborhood, constructed as part of a tax-exempt affordable housing program with funding from the state’s Housing Finance Agency and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program. M+T Bank also provided funding, according to the Doe Fund’s website. Its apartment lottery opened in May 2021 and the Doe Fund announced the building was ready for occupancy last July.
Asked whether the city was considering any new measures to prevent future outbreaks, Patrick Gallahue, a spokesperson for the city’s Health Department, said in a statement, “The city has a robust surveillance system that quickly identifies clusters of Legionnaires’ disease and a rapid environmental response that identifies the cooling towers in the investigation area, tests the cooling towers for Legionella bacteria — the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease — and requires cooling tower owners to remediate if Legionella bacteria is identified.”
He added that the Doe Fund’s long-term prevention plan would include more frequent water monitoring and sampling.
Following a severe Legionnaires’ outbreak in the Bronx in 2015 that infected more than 100 people and killed 12 — the largest outbreak the city had ever recorded — both New York City and New York state began requiring building owners to register their cooling towers and passed new laws around maintenance and testing.
Jory Lange, Long’s lawyer, said he aims to find out the extent to which the Doe Fund was in compliance with those rules. Because the most recent data released by the city is from 2017, it’s unclear how effective city and state regulations have been in reducing the risk of Legionnaires’ disease.
Gallahue of the city's Health Department said it’s hard to answer that question based on recent data because there are a variety of factors impacting the prevalence of Legionnaires’ disease.
“For example, Legionnaires’ is linked to climate change, and as temperatures warm, we will see the risk increase,” Gallahue said. “Additionally, identifying more cases can be linked to much better surveillance – which has improved markedly in New York City since 2015. There is also now much greater awareness among [health care] providers.”
Long, the Bronx resident who is suing the Doe Fund, said it’s only fair for the nonprofit to take responsibility for their role in the most recent outbreak.
“They asked to be in this community,” she said. "Part of being a building owner or a business within the community is you have to take care of the community that you are supposed to be serving.”