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'Listen, We Failed:' Tenants Furious After Rare Infection Spread By Rat Urine Infects 3, Killing 1, In The Bronx

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Anger was unleased in a meeting at a Bronx building Wednesday night, as officials try to make sure no one else gets infected after one person died and two others were sickened by a rare infection spread by rats in the Bronx.

"How am I protected?" one resident said.

As CBS2's Tracee Carrasco reported, residents of 750 Grand Concourse packed the lobby of their rat-infested building for a meeting about the recently reported cases of leptospirosis. The bacterial disease is spread by contact with rat urine.

The meeting often got very heated, with city officials in attendance often interrupted by residents

Residents said the rats have been an issue in the building for years, and now, they are demanding to know why it took one person dying for the city to finally do something.

"All because of something that could have been avoided; something that we have been complaining about for years," said resident Julianne Rosado.

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James took responsibility.

"Listen, we failed. There's no question about it," James said.

Residents were able to ask questions Wednesday night, though they stressed they were just looking for action.

"Fix the repairs, and fix them where people are living in suitable housing," said resident Diane Manning.

The property has received 1,500 complaints for unsafe and unsanitary living conditions. The building owner, Ved Parkash, was recently named by the public advocate as one of the worst landlords in New York City -- a title Parkash disputes.

"I call me a good landlord," Parkash said. "That's why I own this building for 29 years."

When Carrasco noted that residents said rats are running all over, Parkash said, "If a tenant complains to me, I send the extermination."

Carrasco said residents claim that does not happen.

"It happens," Parkash said. "I have the bill in my hand every month without fail that statement is done."

Officials said Parkash has worked diligently to correct all the problems and currently only has 80 open violations, which is why the city didn't stepped in sooner.

"He saw the violations when (Housing Preservation and Development) was about to step in," James said. "What he did was he reduced the violations to a point where HPD obviously backed up."

Late Wednesday night, Mayor Bill de Blasio put out a statement on the rat problem at the building.

"We stand with the tenants. After deploying numerous tools to address persistent problems at this building, we are working with housing advocates and tenants to lodge an action against the landlord to take over operations," de Blasio said in the statement. "We will not rest until we've exhausted every measure to ensure the health and safety of these residents."

Earlier, the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said it was working to make sure infections stop.

"This is not the type of thing we see as epidemic. This is not an outbreak," New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Travis Bassett said.

The Health Department said two patients were diagnosed with leptospirosis in December and one in February -- all three living within a one block radius in the Concourse area.

One of the patients, a 43-year-old Bronx man, told CBS2 in Spanish he's feeling better, but still recovering with antibiotics.

Other residents like Florence Howard say the infestation in their building and in their neighborhood has been a problem for years.

"They run from underneath your stove, your refrigerator," she said. "My apartment is very clean but it just doesn't matter. There's just holes where they find their way in."

Representatives from the city's health department were stationed in the lobby of the building Tuesday night, where they handed out notices to tenants warning them of the cluster of cases.

"There are rats, there are rodents. I come outside they're all here," a resident told CBS2's Hazel Sanchez.

"It pisses me off. It makes me want to sat home and bleach my entire house," Cece Johnson added.

Health officials say there are typically one to three cases of the illness in New York City each year. The bacteria enters the skins through open wounds and cuts or through contact with the eyes, nose or mouth.

While some people may not show any symptoms, others may get sick with a fever, headaches, chills, muscle aches, vomiting or diarrhea. Experts say in rare cases, patients may develop life-threatening reactions that can affect the kidney or liver.

"This can start with meningitis that progresses to liver or kidney failure, and then bleeding from the lungs," Dr. Robert Glatter, Emergency Physician, Lenox Hill Hospital explained.

The disease is not just a concern for people. Veterinarians say dogs are at risk too, as they are curious in nature - and their risk for exposure is higher. A vaccination is recommended.

"They might be able to fight off the infection better, so we do recommend that and not to go after rats," said Dr. Kyoko Yoshida of Hudson Animal Hospital.

The Health Department said there have been 26 human leptospirosis cases in the city since 2006.

"Everything I wash, I have to use bleach because they run around rampantly like they're part of your house," Howard said.

For the last two days the departments of health, buildings, and housing preservation and development have been inspecting the rundown building with countless cracks in the foundation and boarded up walls and doors.

Residents of the building point to the many boarded walls and and doors, saying there is only so much they can do.

"There's a lack of concern about the building, there's a lack of concern with the super and the landlord," Howard said.

The Mayor's office put out a fact sheet about the incidents in the Bronx, which read in part:

  • Leptospirosis Background:
    • Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease spread by animal urine, in this case by rats. It is extremely rare in New York City and it is rarely spread person to person. The disease is treatable with antibiotics.
    • Leptospirosis bacteria enter the body through the eyes, nose or mouth, or through wounds and cuts in the skin. Some people who are infected may have no symptoms, while others may have a mild illness with fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, vomiting or diarrhea. Rarely, infected persons may develop a life-threatening illness that affects their kidneys and liver.

    Precautions to Take:

    • Avoid contact with rats or with places where rats may have urinated.
    • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after any contact with areas where rats may live.
    • If you cannot avoid areas where rats have been seen, or are cleaning areas where rats have been, use a solution of one part household bleach and 10 parts water to kill the leptospirosis bacteria.
    • Protect yourself from contact with their urine: wear rubber gloves (especially if you have any cuts or sores on your hands or arms), boots, masks and some type of eyewear.
    • Always wear shoes whenever taking trash to your trash compactor room.
    • If members of the public believe they have been in contact with rats and are experiencing any of the aforementioned conditions, they should immediately contact their health care providers.

    Leptospirosis Cluster in Concourse neighborhood of the Bronx:

    • There have been three reported cases of Leptospirosis in the Concourse area of the Bronx, all three of which were diagnosed in the last two months and confined to one block.
    • Two patients have recovered and one has died.
    • There are typically one to three cases of Leptospirosis per year in New York City. Prior to this cluster, there have been 26 cases since 2006, one of which resulted in a death.
    • The cluster in the Concourse area is the first cluster (defined as cases occurring in same area and in a short period of time) of Leptospirosis cases ever identified in New York City.
    • The block is home to four schools – two elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. All four schools have passed exterior pest control inspections and the Department of Education (DOE) has found no rodent signs in the school.
    • In December 2016, DOHMH issued multiple violations for 'harborage' conditions at 750 Grand Concourse (on both the exterior and interior of the building) and ordered the building's landlord to immediately remediate the basement and affected apartments.
    • On Monday, February 13, DOHMH confirmed the 3rd case of Leptospirosis at 750 Grand Concourse and immediately started baiting the basement of the building. The two other cases occurred in persons who were not residents, but spent significant time on this block, but not in this building, and had exposure to rodent infested environments.
    • Per HPD, there are 79 open violations at the building and one information order.
    • Per DOB, there are 25 open construction code violations dating back to 2004.

    What is the City doing for 750 Grand Concourse Ave.:

    • On Tuesday, February 14, DOHMH issued a Health Alert to health care providers and informed tenants of the cluster at 750 Grand Concourse by distributing informational, bi-lingual English/Spanish letters. Protective rubber gloves were also provided to the residents.
    • On Tuesday, February 14, DOHMH briefed the Department of Buildings (DOB), Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and elected officials. DOB and HPD responded to the apartment building and DOB vacated 8 illegal Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units in the basement and the tenants were offered relocation assistance from the Red Cross. The vacate orders were issued for illegal subdivisions and lack of secondary egress (unrelated to rat infestation).
    • DOHMH, in partnership with its sister agencies HPD and DOB, is working with the owner of 750 Grand Concourse and building owners in the affected area to remediate rodent infestations, including removing debris, cleaning, sealing cracks and holes, exterminating and setting traps.
    • In addition to the meeting that was held Wednesday night, the Mayor's office also noted the following "immediate future actions:"

    • DOHMH will also distribute masks to tenants of the building which are advised to be worn when entering the building's basement.
    • Joint inspections of the building and surrounding buildings will be conducted as determined by DOHMH.
    • In addition, Members of the Mayor's Public Engagement Unit (PEU) are canvassing local residents effective today, Wednesday, February 15, 2017.
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