A day after offering contradictory information on Legionnaires’ disease during dueling press conferences, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, along with Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, announced they will work together to craft regulations to combat the illness that has killed 12 people in the South Bronx.
The news comes a day after Mr. de Blasio insisted the city would go forward with its own regulation, while Mr. Cuomo at the same time argued that the state should be the one to set policy for testing cooling towers for legionella bacteria. The City Council held a hearing on Mr. de Blasio’s plan for regulating the cooling towers and testing for legionella this morning.
Today, the three elected officials said that instead of working separately, rules would be “drafted by the Governor’s Office, Mayor’s Office and City Council representatives.” Then those rules—presumably different from the legislation the City Council held a hearing on today—will be passed by the City Council and signed by Mr. de Blasio in New York City, while Mr. Cuomo will “use his emergency powers to make the policy statewide.” The joint release said the three pols intend to have the regulation finished in the next several days.
The shift in tone and policy comes after many questioned whether Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Cuomo were allowing their ongoing feud to undermine the public health of residents in the Bronx, where 115 people have been sickened by legionella bacteria. Mr. de Blasio in particular grew frustrated by that line of questioning but also by reporters simply seeking to square away different numbers offered by his office and the governor’s, at one point saying there would be less focus on Legionnaires’ if it were just called pneumonia. Today, the mayor got testy when asked about criticism from a hotel that sources in his administration told the New York Times was likely the source of the outbreak.
The join legislation will mandate timeframes for maintaining and testing cooling towers, set fines for failure to comply, and create a statewide registry of cooling towers.
In a statement, Mr. Cuomo thanked the city for its work—after previously saying people in the Bronx had a reason to be frightened by the outbreak.
“Protecting the public health is our number one priority,” Mr. Cuomo said. “I want the people of New York to know that we are doing everything necessary to tackle this outbreak and stop it from happening again. This unified approach will help in this effort, and I want to thank the City for working hand-in-hand on these emergency regulations to prevent the occurrence of Legionnaires’ disease in the future.”
In his statement, Mr. de Blasio deemed the Legionnaires’ outbreak “unprecedented” and said it needed an “unprecedented” response.
“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,” Mr. de Blasio said. “As the current outbreak tapers off, we now look to how to prevent these outbreaks in the future, and this groundbreaking legislation provides the tools needed to safeguard our communities. The Mayor’s Office continues to work in coordination with the City Council, as well as with our state and federal partners, to keep our people safe and protect public health.”
Ms. Mark-Viverito—whose Council will have to amend the legislation it held a hearing on today and have another hearing on it Thursday before passing it—said the Council was “proud to serve as a model for the rest of New York State.”
“The City, under Mayor Bill de Blasio and Dr. Mary T, Bassett; the State, under Governor Andrew Cuomo and Dr. Howard Zucker; and federal governments have all been collaborating throughout this outbreak and we look forward to continuing to work together for all New Yorkers,” Ms. Mark-Viverito said.
Just as soon as Mr. de Blasio seemed to make nice with Mr. Cuomo, he and his health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, seemed to find a new adversary: Correction Officers Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook, who blasted out a press release about an inmate at Rikers Island testing positive for Legionnaire’s disease, as well as a cooling tower at a Brooklyn jail testing positive for the bacteria.
“The problem is that the Health Department has been slow in sharing information with the DOC – when for obvious reasons, the presence of Legionnaires’ disease in a correctional facility is a ticking time-bomb,” Mr. Seabrook said in a statement. “We are calling on the Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett to step up and immediately test every facility under the control of the Department of Correction and to better share information with the DOC. The health and well-being of thousands of correction officers and inmates is at risk.”
(Mr. Seabrook is no friend of Dr. Bassett’s—according to the New York Times, he told her she’d soil herself, using less polite terminology, if she were left alone with inmates during a tour of Rikers Island. There’s a lengthy history of tension between the correction and health departments, who must work together at Rikers Island where DOH is responsible for inmate healthcare.)
City Hall noted that individual cases of legionella are not entirely uncommon in the city—they happen between 200 and 300 times a year—and said the inmate who had the illness was probably not part of the South Bronx outbreak.
“This case is not believed to be associated with the South Bronx Legionnaires’ outbreak,” a City Hall spokeswoman said. “The patient is being treated with antibiotics. DOC’s six active cooling towers were chemically disinfected last month, but out of an abundance of caution, all six towers are being cleaned again. DOC has consulted with the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) and taken precautions to minimize the risks associated with this form of bacteria.”
This story has been updated to correct that Mr. Cuomo will make the policy statewide, not citywide.