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Man who died of Legionnaires' disease, others hospitalized lived on same block

John Liljehult died at age 96 on Oct.

John Liljehult died at age 96 on Oct. 14, a week after he was rushed to the hospital. Credit: Krista Crockford

The Levittown man who died in a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak this month lived on the same block as two other men who were hospitalized with the bacteria, the two survivors and the daughter of the deceased said.

John Liljehult died at age 96 on Oct. 14, a week after he was rushed to NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island in Mineola, daughter Krista Crockford said.

"He didn’t deserve this death," said Crockford, 55, who noted that her father was "as strong as he can be" for his age until he was weakened by the Legionella bacteria. "This is not the way anyone should go."

Nine other people who lived within a half-mile of Wantagh Avenue and Old Jerusalem Road near the Levittown/Wantagh border were hospitalized with the disease and later released, said Nassau County Health Department spokeswoman Mary Ellen Laurain.

Laurain declined to confirm on which specific streets the 10 people lived, citing health care privacy laws.

The disease typically is contracted by breathing in a mist or vapor containing Legionella, and it is not spread person to person, according to the state Department of Health. Common sources of the bacteria include poorly maintained cooling towers for air conditioning systems, decorative fountains and hot water tanks, the department said.

The source of the outbreak is still unknown. A state laboratory is analyzing water samples collected last weekend by Nassau County, state health department spokesman Jeffrey Hammond said. It generally takes seven to 10 days to obtain Legionella bacteria culture results, he said. Nassau collected water samples from equipment such as cooling towers, Laurain said.

Hammond said although there have been 493 Legionnaires’ disease cases statewide this year, there have been few clusters like the one in Nassau. As part of any cluster investigation, "Cases are linked together or linked to a potential source through genetic matching of samples collected from patients or the environment," Hammond said in an email.

Four people statewide have died of the disease this year, including the latest Nassau case, he said.

Older adults, and people with certain medical conditions, are at higher risk of getting sick from the bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most healthy people exposed to Legionella do not get sick, the CDC says.

Those hospitalized with Legionella were between 35 and 96 years old, but most were older than 50, Laurain said.

One of the leading experts on Legionnaires’ disease, Janet Stout, president of Pittsburgh-based Special Pathogens Laboratory, which focuses on research and prevention of Legionnaires’ disease, said the most likely explanation for the outbreak is that bacteria traveled in a mist from a poorly maintained cooling tower. Someone sitting outside as far as a mile away could potentially get sick, she said.

But Crockford, who has lived with her father for the last 3½ years, said that in the two or so weeks before he got sick, he only went outside to briefly get the mail every day and for two doctors’ visits. Crockford said she tested negative for Legionella.

Crockford recalled how Liljehult began feeling sick on Oct. 5, and that by the morning of Oct. 7, when she called for an ambulance, "He was extremely weak, and he was warm to the touch." His breathing "kept getting worse and worse" while in the emergency department, she said.

After her father died, county employees tested her home’s water, but that was after she already had disinfected the shower head and faucet aerators, as a doctor had advised her to do. She questioned why the county waited until the day her father died to first contact her.

Laurain said she can’t speak about an individual case for privacy reasons. But, she said, "We immediately put out a press release [on Oct. 14] when we became aware there was a cluster. We get individual cases of Legionella all the time. It takes some time to determine there’s a cluster."

Tom Mastroianni, 89, who lived next to Liljehult on Haven Lane, said he was admitted with Legionnaires’ disease to the same hospital as his neighbor on Oct. 9.

Dominic Micheletti, 83, who lives several houses down the street from Mastroianni, said he was rushed in an ambulance to St. Joseph Hospital in Bethpage on Oct. 9.

Micheletti has "no idea, no clue" why he was stricken with the bacteria. His wife Jean, 83, never had symptoms, he said.

Micheletti said that starting on Oct. 4, "I didn’t feel right. And through the whole week I didn’t have any energy. Saturday [Oct. 9], I was in the bathroom and fell on the floor. My legs gave out on me."

He said his Legionnaires’ diagnosis was "scary," because he knew the disease can be deadly. He’s still feeling somewhat tired and weak, but, Micheletti said, "Every day it seems I’m getting better and better."