The Battle Begins
Hartman & Stephen McGuire
t began with a phone call from Borough President Claire Shulman’s press
secretary, Dan Andrews. A personal call from Andrews told the newsroom
that something really big was going to happen. All Andrews would say was
that there was going to be a press conference in College Point, he gave
the location and the time, said Mayor Rudy Giuliani was going to be
there, and said it was going to be big.
Over the past
few summers, helicopters have sprayed pesticides over Queens in order to
end the threat of West Nile virus in the borough.
Tribune Photo by Ira Cohen
Then he said it was a health hazard.
It was September 1999.
Now it seems a lifetime before New York City learned to equate
the words “health hazard” or “bio hazard” with terrorism. Then
Assistant Editor Stephen McGuire and Photo Editor Ira Cohen were
assigned to the press conference, and they called in from College Point
with a bizarre story about mosquitoes, a potentially deadly virus and
something the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management and the Health
Department were calling “St. Louis Encephalitis.”
And that was the first day of reporting on what
health officials and news stories now call the West Nile Virus.
A Virus By Any Other Name
The Tribune’s first story on the virus
that would come to be an annual health warning for New York ran in the
Sept. 8-15, 1999 edition and reported the following:
“As the Tribune went to press and more
helicopters passed over Queens roofs to spray insecticide on the borough
at night, three people were dead, 48 people were sick and nine people
knew for sure that they were suffering from St. Louis Encephalitis.
ran extensive articles on the West Nile outbreak, using the term
“ground zero” to describe the disease’s home base in College
“It is a confusing disease carried by
mosquitoes that the City Department of Health believes were breeding in
College Point. Some people – those who are younger and very healthy
– may only suffer flu-like symptoms or never even know they have it.
Others – more advanced in years or susceptible to disease – could
lapse into comas or die...
“For Queens, it means that if 48 possible
cases are being treated, there could be between 9,000 and 48,000 people
infected . . . and most of them will probably never get sick. Others
will have to wait four to 14 days for symptoms to appear. . .
“The symptoms can be flu like, but the key is
a high and prolonged fever without coughing or other cold symptoms,
Flushing Hospital doctors said. The initial patients treated by Conetta,
Dr. Deborah Asnis, Dr. Jeffrey Appelbaum and Dr. Robert Crupi at
Flushing led to the diagnosis of SLE. Conetta said that anyone with a
high fever, headaches, nausea, diarrhea and tiredness or muscle fatigue
would do well to consult their physician.
“Other symptoms can include vomiting, a stiff
neck and back, drowsiness, clumsiness, irritability.
“Emergency symptoms can include loss of
consciousness, seizures, muscle weakness and paralysis, and sudden
dementia or and memory loss . . . .
“[The insecticide] Malathion was sprayed from
helicopters overhead and fogged through neighborhood streets throughout
the day on Sept. 4. According to the City Health Department, an area
roughly bounded by Flushing Bay and the Van Wyck Expwy to the west,
Utopia Pkwy to the east, the Long Island Expwy to the south and the Long
Island Sound to the north was sprayed by either fog truck or by air.
“John Gadd, a spokesperson for the Health
Department, said that ‘every effort was made to notify the public’
of the spraying before it happened and pamphlets were issued in six
different languages. Gadd added that the Health Department, working in
cooperation with the OEM, had contacted ‘community groups’ and other
important organizations, however he could not provide information on who
had been contacted and when.
“However, Beechhurst residents jogged through
mists of the insecticide in the early morning hours of Sept. 4 before
receiving late morning warnings to stay indoors during spraying. Stores
closed down in the Bay Terrace shopping center to send staff and
customers home before nighttime spraying, yet on Bell Boulevard – just
a few minutes away by car – residents walked the sidewalks and enjoyed
the open-air feel of restaurants with their facades open to the street.
“At a quickly called a press conference held
at the foot of Powell’s Cove Park on Sept. 3, Mayor Rudy Giuliani
urged area residents to remain calm as he demonstrated how to apply
insect repellent – a method City health officials are touting as one
of several ways those in Northeast Queens can prevent being infected by
the rare bug-borne virus.”
Advice To Residents
When the first outbreak came in 1999, the City
Health Department advised residents to do the following, and they
continue to offer similar advice every year as mosquito season comes to
• Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and
socks when outdoors and use mosquito repellant on exposed skin.
• Use insect repellants with no more than 30
percent DEET, but use sparingly and with care. Products containing 15
percent or less DEET are recommended for children but products
containing DEET should not be used on infants.
• Avoid unnecessary outdoor activity from
dusk until dawn when mosquitoes are most active.
• Remove water from cans and jars, discarded
tires, clogged roof gutters, yard decorations or any other outdoor
containers since mosquitoes lay eggs in standing water.
• Ensure that your home has tight-fitting
screens over windows and doors to keep mosquitoes from entering
apartments and homes.
More Information Needed
A month later, the story continued to change as
information was released slowly and unevenly and issues of spraying
schedules began. The trouble of spraying notification began in 1999, but
has continued through the 2002 mosquito season, when Borough President
Helen Marshall’s office took issue with the City’s notification
In Sept. 29 – Oct. 6, 1999, the story in the Tribune
was as follows:
“Over a month after City officials first
descended upon Powell’s Cove in College Point to alert the City about
a potentially deadly disease carried by mosquitoes and mounted an
aggressive insecticide spraying campaign, questions about the disease
still linger and health officials with needles are knocking on doors
searching for some answers . . . .
“As of the Health Dept.’s Oct. 3 update, 38
cases of ‘West Nile-like virus have been confirmed by the CDC, 166
cases are under investigation and four Queens people are dead. The most
recently confirmed case was a 71-year-old Jackson Heights man who has
already been discharged from the hospital.
“Of the 38 positive cases, 29 are age 60 or
over, three are in their 50s, and the remaining six were 5, 15, 29, 32,
28 and 40-years old. All of the reported deaths have been among the more
senior patients . . . .
“The U.S. Center for Disease Control has
confirmed that the disease being fought in Queens and now spreading as
far as Nassau and Westchester is not caused by the St. Louis virus, as
first reported, but by the West Nile virus.
“The West-Nile virus is usually only found
Africa, Asia and the Middle East, Dr. Deborah Asnis, director of
infectious diseases at Flushing Hospital and part of the team of doctors
who first uncovered the illness in Queens...
also no specific treatment for West Nile virus encephalitis, Asnis
added, but just as in St. Louis Encephalitis (SLE), patients are kept
nourished and hydrated to ride out the storm.”
is West Nile Fever?
West Nile Fever (WNF) is a mosquito-borne
disease that can cause encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain. It is
caused by the West Nile Virus, named after the West Nile district of
Uganda where the virus was first isolated in 1937. The viruses that
cause West Nile Fever and St. Louis Encephalitis come from the same
family of flaviviruses, and cause diseases that are similar to one
another. West Nile-like virus, such as St. Louis Encephalitis, are
spread to humans by the bite of infected mosquitoes. A mosquito becomes
infected by biting a bird which carries the virus. WNF is not spread by
person-to-person contact or directly from birds to persons.
For more information?
• For more information on the virus or to
report puddles of water or dead birds, log on to the City Department of
Health and Mental Hygiene website at http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/home.html
• To call
for more information or to make a report, dial 311.