Is the health department filtering the truth?

Health departments, at both the county and state levels, serve many vital functions; one of them is to accurately inform the public of health threats in their midst.

We posted a story on Sept. 20 based in part on information from the state’s Department of Health.

In answer to questions our Guilderland reporter, Elizabeth Floyd Mair, had asked, Erin Silk, a health-department spokeswoman, had written in an email, “The Department is investigating a case of Legionnaires’ disease associated with a resident at Promenade and we are analyzing for both clinical and environmental samples.”

Promenade, an assisted-living facility at 1228 Western Ave. in Guilderland, had had an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, a form of pneumonia, in February with two cases; one resident died.

The same building, when it was a hotel, had had an outbreak of Legionnaires’ in 2012. We wrote about each of these outbreaks.

In each story, The Enterprise included the viewpoint of the building’s owner as well as background on the disease from experts.

For our Sept. 20 story, Floyd Mair called a spokesman for Promenade, Paul Fahey of Overit. The resident is suspected to have Legionnaires’ but, like other residents, the person leaves the facility and goes out shopping and on vacation, Fahey said at the time.

On Oct. 25, Floyd Mair heard from Gary Holmes, also with the state’s Department of Health, that environmental samples collected from Promenade confirmed the continued presence of Legionella bacteria at the facility, and the department had prohibited Promenade from admitting any new residents until three successive monthly rounds of testing showed satisfactory results: Legionella bacteria in less than 30 percent of sampled outlets.

Floyd Mair wrote a story that we posted that day, Oct. 25, on the latest news.

The following Monday, Oct. 28, Floyd Mair spent the day at a hearing during which Promenade presented its case, trying to have the ban on admitting new residents lifted.

During the hearing, Promenade argued that, as the sole assisted living facility in the county that accepts Medicaid, it is the only place in Albany County where low-income residents can live and receive the services Promenade provides.

Promenade also argued that, since March, point-of-use filters have been installed on all showers and faucets used by residents, which serves as “a barrier that prevents bacteria from crossing over” while Promenade works to try to lower the amount of Legionella bacteria in the water.

As we were assembling that week’s paper on Wednesday night for print the following morning, Oct. 31, we received an email from the public-relations firm, Overit, representing Promenade. It contained a copy of a letter that had been sent to Promenade residents and their families that day, Oct. 30, stating the media reports had been off and rather, after a resident fell ill in September, the state’s department of health did testing “to see if that resident showed a presence of the same legionella bacterial strain that has been found in our building. According to information provided to us by the Department of Health, that bacterial strain was not detected.”

We included that very quotation from the letter to Promenade residents in our story on the hearing. It was too late at night to reach anyone from the state’s health department for an explanation. The story was printed in the wee hours of the morning on Thursday, Oct. 31.

The next day, Nov. 1, we received an email from Leanne Ricchiuti of Overit titled “URGENT Correction.”

“No one has come out to say what allegedly made the resident sick, but the results we have from the State Health Department indicate there was no presence of the legionella bacteria that has been present in our water samples,” wrote Ricchiuti. “No one has contracted Legionnaires disease from our facility since the filters were installed back in February.”

Floyd Mair immediately called the health department to find out if the department has indeed investigated a case of Legionnaires’ associated with a Promenade resident as it had said in September.

We at The Enterprise are always eager to correct any mistakes we’ve made. But we don’t want to further confuse the public by correcting something that was not wrong in the first place.

This time, Floyd Mair talked with Gary Holmes at the health department who would not confirm or deny if his department had tested a resident of Promenade for Legionnaires’ in September nor would Holmes say what those test results were.

Instead, Holmes would say only, “... [T]he facility has the ability to challenge the order [not to admit new residents] and to do so in court. That has to be the forum where I’m comfortable with this playing out.”

Meanwhile, Overit staff members were getting frustrated with the lack of a correction as we explained we had included their viewpoint in our Oct. 31 article but had no way of knowing  — without the health department weighing in — if a correction was needed.

Our last conversation with Overit staffers was on Nov. 5 when they attempted to reach Holmes to back up their assertions. He did not respond immediately and Overit never called us back.

Floyd Mair will be at the next part of the hearing, on Nov. 15, during which the department of health will present its reasoning for instituting the ban on admission of new Promenade residents.

If the truth comes out then, we’ll be sure to report it.

We have no quarrel with Overit. We understand the public-relations firm is doing what it was hired to do — present Promenade in the best possible light.

That’s not our job, though. Our job is to present as many sides of a story as are relevant to figure out the truth as best we can.

We do have a problem with the lack of forthright answers from the health department. If the department was mistaken in its September statement that another case of Legionnaires’ associated with a Promenade resident was being investigated, why not simply say so?

If, on the other hand, the September statement was correct, why not tell the public what the tests revealed?

In the meantime, trying to find another avenue to the truth, Floyd Mair called on an expert she had used in earlier Legionnaires’ stories, Leonard Mermel. He’s a professor of medicine at Brown University’s medical school and also the medical director of Rhode Island Hospital’s Department of Epidemiology and Infection Control.

Mermel said that point-of-use filters, like those used at Promenade on sinks and showers, should prevent Legionnaires’ disease.

However, he also said that the bacteria can come from fountains or air-conditioners and noted a case where four people died from Legionnaires’ contracted when they stood near a hot-tub display at a North Carolina state fair in September; more than 130 cases of Legionnaires’ were reported among those attending the North Carolina Mountain State Fair.

Mermel also said of the Legionnaires’ case the health department had said it was investigating in September, that, if the resident lived at Promenade, it is likely he or she got the disease there.

The incubation period, he said, is two to 10 days. He presumes that the health department would have found out where else that person had been in the 10 days before falling ill and checked to see if anyone else who had been to those places had also gotten sick.

That is the sort of information that would be valuable for the public to know. Without any breach of privacy — there is no need to release names, ages, genders, or addresses — the health department could inform the public in broad terms what the risks are.

On its own website, the department says that about 700 cases of Legionnaires’ disease are reported each year in New York State, most occurring as single, isolated events.

An outbreak, it says, is when multiple people who are diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease were around the same place at about the same time. “In a health care facility,” it says, “even one case is considered an outbreak and is investigated.”

It goes on, “The purpose of the investigation is to try to learn the source of the exposure so it can be addressed to prevent further illness.”

So, what the public needs to know is:

— After the outbreaks in the building at 1228 Western Ave. in 2012, when it was a hotel, and in February 2019, after it became an assisted-living facility, was there another outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease?

— If not, what happened in September that led the health department to say it was investigating a case of Legionnaires’?

— If so, what did the investigation show?

 The public — particularly the people living in that building — deserves answers.


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