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Gannett: NY Eyes Regulations for Legionnaire’s Disease

By Joe Spector, August 11 (via Poughkeepsie Journal)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he and the state Legislature will work on new laws and regulations governing cooling towers in New York buildings after an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the Bronx has led to 12 deaths.

It’s has been the largest outbreak of the disease in the city’s history, and there have been three cases in nearby Rockland County in recent days.

Cuomo said the state needs a standard policy on how to inspect buildings for Legionnaires’ disease, a form of bacteria that can lead to pneumonia especially among the elderly and people with preexisting health conditions.

Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who have been at odds over the response to the outbreak, said Tuesday evening that they would come up with joint regulations and legislation that would mandate maintenance and testing of cooling towers, fines for failure to comply and a statewide registry.

As of Monday afternoon, there were 113 reported cases of the disease in the Bronx and cooling towers in 18 buildings that have tested positive for the legionella bacteria, state and city officials said. Every cooling tower in the area has been ordered to be disinfected.

“We can’t have this happen again,” Cuomo told reporters Monday afternoon. “We have to have a statewide system, statewide protocols. So if you own a building in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse or Nassau, you have the same protocol.”

Indeed, there appears to be little state oversight of cooling units in hospitals, nursing homes or apartments, except for some recommended guidance. Cuomo urged owners to inspect their buildings, particularly in the summer months when air conditioning is being used.

“If building owners are not going to take it on themselves to do the right thing and take corrective action, then the state will,” Cuomo said.

De Blasio introduced legislation on Monday with City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito that would mandate inspections of cooling towers and register them. On Tuesday, the sides agreed to work jointly on statewide measures.

“This legislative action will be the first of its kind for a major American city, as well as the first set of regulations by any state in the union, and it will establish new registration, cleaning and monitoring standards for cooling towers in the fight against Legionnaires’ disease,” de Blasio said in a statement.

Senate Health Committee chairman Kemp Hannon, R-Nassau County, said the chamber would consider ways to better regulate buildings for Legionnaires’ disease. The Legislature doesn’t plan to return to the Capitol until January after its legislative session ended in June.

“Obviously anytime you even have one death, you have to be concerned as to whether the system is working. It’s not working,” Hannon said.

But Hannon said any regulations would need to balance public health concerns with putting an unfunded mandate on local governments, who could be required to increase inspections and oversight of the buildings.

“There really needs to be a wider look at what’s going on, to see how it’s going and then to make a decision as to who is going to do the type of oversight you need in this state,” he said. “Anytime you change requirements in public health, we always have a debate over who is going to pay for it.”

Dr. Sherlita Amler, the Westchester County health commissioner, said the county investigates cases of Legionnaires’ disease, but outside New York City, there isn’t the concentration of housing that can poise as great as a risk for an outbreak.

“There are sporadic cases,” she said. “I would imagine almost every county has sporadic cases, and a lot of times it’s never related to anything and you never find the source. But when you have multiple cases that have some kind of link, then an investigation ensues.”

On its website, the state Health Department said it has about fewer than 100 cases are reported each year outside New York City, and “most cases occur as single isolated events.”

Assembly Health Committee chairman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, said in a statement that “statewide regulations would be appropriate.”

“But New York state has been well served by a very long tradition that most public health code enforcement is done by local health departments, and an even longer tradition of New York City regulations being made by New York City,” he continued. “Legionnaire’s is unpredictable and being cautious and preemptive is a correct response.”