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Death Toll Rises To 12 In Legionnaires' Outbreak In The South Bronx

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) --  New York City is taking an unprecedented preventative move after two more deaths have been linked to the Legionnaires' disease outbreak in the South Bronx, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday.

Legislation requiring the regular inspection of cooling towers -- the apparent source of legionella bacteria in the Bronx -- would be the first of its kind in the country, CBS2's Hazel Sanchez reported.

"We are dealing with a new set of realities that we've never encountered before in this city," said Mayor de Blasio. "And as we experience this outbreak we are making a series of changes in the approach that we undertake."

All cooling towers would have to be registered with the city, and regular testing and cleaning would be required, Sanchez reported.

Anthony Sannazarro works for Highmark, a company that installs and maintains cooling towers throughout the Tri-State Area. He told CBS2's Jessica Schneider the regulations are long overdue.

"Obviously, there are some issues where if the unit isn't maintained properly, then issues like this can arise," Sannazarro said.

Death Toll Rises To 12 In Legionnaires' Outbreak In The South Bronx

Last week, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene ordered all buildings with cooling towers that haven't been tested in the last 30 days be tested and any towers found contaminated be disinfected in 14 days. Failure to comply is a misdemeanor.

Cooling towers are not air conditioners. They basically pull heat from inside a building and use water and an evaporation process to transfer the heat outside. Excess water lands in this catch basin where the bacteria can grow, Sanchez reported.

Death Toll Rises To 12 In Legionnaires' Outbreak In The South Bronx

A total of 12 people have now died and 113 sickened. That number went up slightly because people were diagnosed after the fact. There have been no new cases in the last week, and authorities say there's no sign of anyone else getting sick, 1010 WINS' Juliet Papa reported.

"We have encouraging news that points to the end of this outbreak," city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett told reporters, including WCBS 880's Rich Lamb. "The rate of new cases has slowed, and we know that people are seeking care and getting treatment properly."

Meanwhile Monday, de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave separate numbers of cooling towers that had been tested by the city and state. But as 1010 WINS' Carol D'Auria reported, Cuomo attempted Monday to downplay any conflict – perceived or real – between the state and the city over the handling of the Legionnaires' epidemic.

Cuomo Blames Building Owners In Legionnaires' Outbreak

Cuomo said the state and the city are sharing information as each continues to test cooling towers, and pointed the finger at the building owners, WCBS 880's Alex Silverman reported.

"I think this is the height of irresponsibility for a building owner that has a cooling tower to not have checked the cooling tower by now or treated the cooling tower by now," Cuomo said. "We offered last week free testing by the state."

Cuomo said people are still sick and more may die, so he said there are legal and liability reasons for the building owners to act.

Cuomo Blames Building Owners In Legionnaires' Outbreak

Cuomo said further that he does not know the specifics of the City Council legislation to regulate cooling towers, and he wants a state law.

"I don't want to have different protocols in different cities, so if you own a building in Albany you do one thing, if you own a building in New York City you do something else," he said.

The outbreak is the largest in city history. It is centered in the South Bronx, where 12 buildings have tested positive for the bacteria.

The disease is a form of pneumonia that's caused by breathing in mist contaminated with the Legionella bacteria. It cannot be spread through person to person contact, health officials said.

The disease is easily diagnosed and can be treated with antibiotics but poses a serious risk to anyone with an underlying medical condition.

It's not clear what triggered the outbreak, which began last month.

And the problems are not only in New York City. Legionnaires' disease has also been reported in Rockland County.

In one of the Rockland cases, the Chromalloy facility in Orangeburg was shut down and quarantined Friday when an employee reported being sick with the disease. There are two confirmed cases there – one of them involving a person who worked in the South Bronx, and the other with no evidence of being connected to the New York City outbreak, health officials said.

Many are wondering why the outbreak is happening now, Sanchez reported.

"It's not a summer-only event," said Richard Gerbe with Highmark. "But why now because the majority of the cooling towers in New York City are running. They are at 100 percent. It's our hottest days so I think you just see the frequency of more units operating."

But Dr. Robert Glatter of North Shore-LIJ Lenox Hill Hospital said people should not panic. He said the people who got sick did not merely walk past cooling towers or buildings.

"They didn't get it just necessarily from walking by. They probably had a prolonged exposure. We don't know exactly why at this point," Glatter said. "But this mist -- you have to breathe a lot of in. You know, if you or I breathe this mist in, it's unlikely you'll get it."

Cuomo's office said his inspectors have discovered legionella in cooling towers outside the target area in the Bronx, including Rockland County -- perhaps a sign that regulations should be more widespread, Sanchez reported.

Symptoms of Legionnaires' disease include headache, fatigue, loss of appetite, confusion and diarrhea.

Symptoms appear two to 10 days after exposure to Legionella bacteria.

(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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