In 1854, Dr. John Snow tracked down the cause of deadly cholera outbreaks in London to contaminated water and convinced local officials to remove the handle from a well’s water pump to end the threat. Fifty years later, an intrepid New York City Health Department epidemiologist named George Soper tracked down a spate of deadly typhoid cases to an Irish cook named Mary Mallon. Soper’s tireless pursuit of “Typhoid Mary” led to groundbreaking laws aimed at public health protection in the Big Apple.
We have many public health heroes in Rockland County who have followed in the footsteps of Snow and Soper. Just this week, County Health Commissioner Dr. Patricia Schnabel Ruppert and her team of “disease detectives” guided the county through a dangerous encounter with Legionnaires’disease.
While the Legionella bacteria has claimed more than a dozen lives in New York City, only three Rockland County residents are known to have been sickened by the severe, often lethal, form of pneumonia since July 1st. Only one of the cases is associated with the Bronx outbreak, while the two others are isolated cases with no links to New York City or each other. All three individuals are doing well following treatment. Rockland County typically sees a handful of Legionnaires’ cases each year.
Upon learning of the single case in the workforce at Chromalloy Gas Turbine Corporation in Orangeburg, the Health Department jumped into action. Dr. Ruppert directed her staff to gather critical information about the facility and its staff. Communicable Disease Program Director Dr. Anil Vaidian and program coordinator Maria Souto engaged Chromalloy management and provided guidance in Legionella detection and control. The New York State Department of Health was contacted, with Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker placed in direct communication with Dr. Ruppert.
Public outreach via traditional news outlets and the county’s social media channels provided our residents with timely updates and education about Legionnaires. At my direction, letters were sent to local hospitals, health providers and businesses. Correspondence to physicians included information on symptoms, testing and treatment. Letters to the business associations and owners contained guidance on inspection and maintenance of hot and cold water systems, including cooling towers.
In addition to Rockland’s Communicable Disease experts, our county is also home to dozens of unsung public health heroes – our nurses, paramedics, patient care technicians, lab clinicians and health inspectors. These are the professionals who plan ahead to meet health needs during emergencies and disasters; who work with restaurants, schools and camps to help prevent foodborne illness; who strive to reduce the impact of communicable diseases like seasonal flu and pertussis through immunization; who collaborate to create communities where families can make healthy choices and where babies are born with healthy futures ahead of them.
In my daily travels around the county, I have met these heroes. They work long hours with limited and uncertain resources and face difficult challenges. Because their efforts so frequently solve problems and avert crises, their successes may receive little notice. But, I have been struck by their passion for their work and their determination to improve public health and the quality of life in Rockland County. So, as we move beyond this month’s Legionnaires scare, I encourage you to join me in thanking our public health heroes.