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Hotel That Enlivened the Bronx Is Now a ‘Hot Spot’ for Legionnaires’

10/08/2015

The arrival of the Opera House Hotel in the South Bronx two years ago was a turning point for a poor corner of New York City.

A rundown theater building where Harry Houdini and the Marx Brothers performed was transformed into a boutique hotel with terrazzo floors, custom furnishings and concierge service. It became an instant landmark among the bodegas, fast-food restaurants and pharmacies that drive the neighborhood commerce.
But now the Opera House, on East 149th Street, is at the center of the worst outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the city’s history, with investigators identifying a cluster of three patients who had direct contact with the hotel, and a second cluster of three who live in an apartment building on the street behind the hotel.

The airborne disease has killed 12 people and infected at least 113 since early July, overshadowing an economic success story and highlighting the public health risks that have long plagued the city’s poorest borough.

The hotel’s water-cooling tower was one of five in the South Bronx that initially tested positive for the Legionella bacteria, and on Monday night, a city official said that the investigation so far pointed to the hotel, though the official cautioned that test results were still out and that no final conclusions had been reached
“The preponderance of medical and scientific information available now points to one of the original five sites as the source of this outbreak, with the Opera House Hotel as the most likely source of the outbreak,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the findings were preliminary.
“This is not final or official until test results are received back from the lab,” the official said.
In a chart highlighted by city health officials, the hotel’s tower is the one surrounded by the densest concentration of identified cases.

Glenn Isaacs, a representative for the Opera House Hotel, said that he was contacted on Monday night by an aide to Mayor Bill de Blasio and told that the hotel’s cooling tower had been linked to the clusters. Mr. Isaacs said that last month hotel workers emailed every guest who had stayed at the hotel since July 1 and provided an email address. None of the guests contacted reported having come down with Legionnaires’ disease, or having developed any symptoms of it, Mr. Isaacs said.

The other buildings in the group of towers with initial positive tests were Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center, Concourse Plaza shopping mall, a Verizon office building and Streamline Plastics Company.
Over the last few days, several more towers have tested positive for the Legionella bacteria, which causes Legionnaires’ disease, but city officials said they did not believe those sites were responsible for the outbreak.

On Monday, city officials held a public briefing at which they announced the death toll had increased to 12 and detailed their continuing effort to address the outbreak. But Mr. de Blasio found himself once again at odds with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, who held his own briefing. The governor has faulted the city’s handling of the outbreak and has directed his health agency to take a more active role.

In an interview, city health officials said the two clusters of three patients each, at the hotel and in a nearby building, were significant because a vast majority of those with the disease did not share a common address. The only other cluster that had been identified was farther north and consisted of two people.

City health officials have said they are awaiting test results that may be able to match the specific bacteria in each tower to individual patients who contracted the disease.
Last week, city officials ordered every building with a cooling tower to inspect and disinfect it within two weeks. Investigators with the State Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also stepped in to help test and collect water samples from Bronx cooling towers.

Cooling towers are bulky structures that help control hot and cold air in buildings. Legionnaires’ disease can be contracted when a person inhales contaminated mist from a cooling tower or another water source.
Even as the hotel became a focus of public attention, often serving as a backdrop for news reports on the outbreak, the hotel had repeatedly said that no guests or hotel workers contracted Legionnaires’ disease and that it immediately treated and disinfected its tower.
But with confirmation that a cluster of cases has been directly linked to the hotel, it faces a fresh public-relations challenge.
In the block behind the Opera House Hotel, three residents of the Brook, an apartment building on East 148th Street, have contracted the disease, said Brenda Rosen, president and chief executive of Common Ground, a nonprofit organization that owns and operates the building, which houses low-income and formerly homeless people. Ms. Rosen added that none of the three residents had died.
More than a week ago, city health officials held a meeting for the Brook’s residents and staff, in which one person recalled that they described the hotel as a “hot spot” for the outbreak. Others said that health officials told them that a helicopter was used to survey cooling towers surrounded by a large number of cases, including the one at the Opera House Hotel.

The Opera House Hotel opened after a multimillion-dollar renovation of its building in a borough that has attracted a spate of development in recent years. It represented the first foray into the Bronx for the Empire Hotel Group, which has seven other hotels in Manhattan, including the Lucerne on the Upper West Side. The Opera House Hotel’s website listed nightly rates from $149 to $209 through September.

The hotel can seem a bit out of place alongside its neighbors. A reminder of that came in June when Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, P.R., booked a room there upon the recommendation of her friend, Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Council speaker, whose district includes the hotel. When the mayor tried to go back to the hotel from Greenwich Village, one taxi driver refused, while another driver initially refused but then reluctantly agreed. Both were later disciplined by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission.

The outbreak has been a setback for a hotel that many Bronx residents welcomed. Margarita Orellana, 37, a co-owner of Mexicozina restaurant near the hotel, said the hotel had brought more customers. “It’s better for me that the hotel is there,” she said, though business has dropped off since the outbreak.
Mr. Isaacs said the hotel had been consistently full since the outbreak and had seen no change in its occupancy rate.
The hotel hired the Metro Group to clean its cooling tower on Aug. 1 after the Legionella bacteria was detected by city health officials. Rich Parker, the president of Metro Group, said that was the only time his company had been directed to clean the tower, though they had performed monthly checks of the chemicals used to help control biological growth in the tower since spring 2014. Those checks do not test for the presence of bacteria, he said.

Government and industry guidelines for preventing Legionella bacteria recommend that cooling towers be cleaned regularly, typically twice a year. Mr. Parker said his company, as a matter of policy, contacted its clients by phone and mail to recommend the cleaning.
Mr. Isaacs said the hotel’s cooling tower had been cleaned by an in-house engineering department on a regular basis, based on industry practices and guidelines, since the hotel opened in 2013.

Even cooling towers that are cleaned can harbor the Legionella bacteria. The one at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center is cleaned and disinfected every six months, according to recommended guidelines, hospital officials said. Before its most recent cleaning on July 29, after testing positive for Legionella bacteria, the tower had been cleaned in March.

The Opera House Hotel, which is on a busy commercial strip with housewares and furniture displayed on the sidewalk, has elicited mixed feelings from nearby residents since the outbreak.

Albethia Washington, 45, who lives a block away from the hotel, said she did not blame it for the outbreak. She gave it credit for bringing more visitors to the Bronx, though her relatives could not afford to stay there.

Frankie Estrada, 48, who lives in the area, said he built the hotel’s front desk. “Just by hearing about a hotel of that magnitude here, it gave me the feeling that things are getting better in this neighborhood,” he explained. Legionnaires’, he said, would not change that.
“I just hope I don’t breathe into it,” he added.

Fonte: The New York Times
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