LOCKPORT – Niagara County's total number of confirmed Legionnaires' Disease cases this year is up to 37, but the county public health director said Friday that could be attributable to more testing for the disease.
Daniel J. Stapleton said 25 of the 37 cases are in the City or Town of Lockport, with the number of confirmed fatalities at two.
Niagara County had only 12 Legionnaires' cases in 2015 and the same number in 2014, so 37 is more than three times as many.
"I'm not saying it's not an unusually large number, but the cause of it, I believe and the state believes, is because of confirmatory testing," Stapleton said.
The State Health Department made an effort to raise awareness of Legionnaires' Disease in New York after a large outbreak in the Bronx in August 2015, in which 120 people became ill and 12 died.
The outbreak was blamed on a cooling system tower at a Bronx hotel, which was contaminated with Legionella, the bacteria that causes the pneumonia-like respiratory disease.
After that, the state ordered testing of all cooling towers for Legionella every 90 days, and urged doctors to order more tests for Legionnaires' Disease.
In Niagara County, the source of the cases in the Lockport cluster has not been proven.
"The numbers are going up because doctors have been made aware of the issue and are doing the confirmatory testing, which they might not have done before," Stapleton said. "They might have just treated the patient with antibiotics, it (the ailment) resolved on its own and it wasn't reported."
However, a similar increase in Legionnaires' cases has not been seen statewide. The State Health Department said as of Friday there had been 425 confirmed cases in the entire state outside New York City. There were 433 cases in all of 2015.
Paul R. Dicky, county environmental health director, told the county Board of Health on Thursday that his staff has checked out 101 cooling towers in the county. Stapleton said only two have had elevated levels of Legionella.
One was the cooling tower at Eastern Niagara Hospital in Lockport, which failed a Legionella test in September after passing one in June.
A man who lived on a street bordering the hospital property, Richard A. Jepson, 68, of Beverly Avenue, died July 22 of Legionnaires' Disease. His family revealed the information to The Buffalo News; authorities have never confirmed it officially, but the family showed The News his death certificate, listing Legionnaires' Disease as the cause of death.
Legionella is regarded as a common bacterium in the environment, living in moist areas. The disease can be contracted only by breathing it in, but most people who encounter it don't get sick, the State Health Department says. Patients tend to have compromised immune or respiratory systems. Jepson, for example, had undergone two rounds of chemotherapy for bladder cancer when he contracted Legionnaires' Disease.
The only other cooling tower in the county found to have elevated Legionella levels was at an industrial plant on Buffalo Avenue in Niagara Falls last spring. Stapleton, who did not identify the factory, said there were no reported Legionnaires' cases in that part of Niagara Falls, which is lightly populated.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Legionella can travel about a quarter-mile when expelled from a cooling tower. However, there are dozens of strains and substrains of Legionella, and not all of them make people sick. Symptoms generally appear five or six days after a vulnerable person breathes in the bacteria.
Stapleton said the State Health Department lab has not been able to grow a Legionella culture from DNA in sputum samples taken from patients with Legionnaires' Disease this year, but the antibiotics used to treat the disease may have killed the bacteria before the samples were taken. That has interfered with efforts to pinpoint the cause of the Lockport cluster of Legionnaires' patients.
Summer and early fall are prime time for the disease. Stapleton said that could be because cooling towers are more heavily used then.