Hebrew Home copes with outbreak

Five residents recover after timely response to Legionnaires' disease


The Hebrew Home at Riverdale has implemented more stringent water restrictions and testing after five residents contracted Legionnaires’ disease.

All five have recovered, according to Hebrew Home officials, and none required hospitalization.

“I’ve been here 32 years, and this is the first time we ever dealt with something like this,” said David Pomeranz, chief operating officer of RiverSpring Health, the Hebrew Home’s parent organization. 

Doctors at the Hebrew Home discovered the five were infected with the Legionella bacteria, which causes Legionnaires’ disease, last month, according to state health department officials. They were immediately placed on a 10-day antibiotic regimen, while water used in the Palisade Avenue facility’s cooling towers were treated with additional chemicals designed to destroy the bacteria.

Despite the small outbreak, the Hebrew Home has closely followed state guidelines intended to prevent Legionnaires’, Pomeranz said, but even that system isn’t perfect.

Legionnaires’ disease was first identified in 1976 when a number of people who attended an American Legion convention in Philadelphia suddenly developed pneumonia. Nearly 30 of them died.

The history surrounding Legionnaires’ is well known, which might explain why many fear even the mention of the disease. Yet, only a small fraction of people get sick from exposure to Legionella, health department officials said, which typically afflicts those who are older, or have weakened immune systems.

“Our bodies are created with many, many natural defenses,” said Dr. Zachary Palace, the Hebrew Home’s medical director. “Our medical staff is very, very in-tune with this, and we have a high level of surveillance, especially with those who have upper respiratory issues.”

Some residents who live near Hebrew Home, however, are upset that neither the assisted living facility nor the state health department let neighbors know there had been an outbreak.

“As you know, Legionnaires’ disease is an airborne disease most commonly associated with cooling towers,” said Martin Zelnik, who lives just down the road at Sigma Place, in an email. Some of “the Hebrew Home cooling towers are at sidewalk level, almost abutting its easterly property line.”

Skyview-on-the-Hudson is just a few hundred feet away, Zelnik added, with other single-family homes nearby too.

“It begs the question if (there is) both (a) civic and moral responsibility to proactively notify the Riverdale community.”

But Legionnaires’ typically can’t be passed person-to-person, health officials said, and infection-causing exposure normally requires an indoor, enclosed environment. The bacteria is common, and many people may have been exposed to it in the past without even knowing it, or ever developing any health issues because of it.

Yet, Pomeranz knows hearing about the disease can create fear — especially after an outbreak in Manhattan over the summer claimed the life of one person, and sickened a handful of others.


Aggressive approach

“We have taken a very aggressive approach to not only write to all the families and all our residents, but to make ourselves available to help answer questions,” Pomeranz said. “We don’t want people to not want to come and visit their grandmother. That would be the worst thing that could happen.” 

Yet, the Hebrew Home — and anyone using the city water supply locally — will still have to remain vigilant to prevent another outbreak from happening. 

“The city treats water at every stage, but it still has to travel through old pipes that have been there a hundred years,” Palace said. “The filaments of the pipes are breaking off and causing the bacteria to form in the water. Most people are healthy enough to where it won’t affect them, but it’s not unique to us, and it’s in the water system.”