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‘A Perfect Storm’: Seniors in NYCHA Buildings with Poor Ventilation Slammed by COVID-19

With a major fan replacement project running behind and winter on the way, health experts warn of danger for more virus spread in public housing developments.

A worker installs a fan on the roof of a Wald Houses roof in the East Village.
A worker installs a fan on the roof of a Manhattan NYCHA development.
NYCHA

Last spring, as the coronavirus swept New York City, it hit hard at a nine-story seniors-only public housing development on Union Avenue in The Bronx.

In the 10 weeks between March and mid-May, at least 15 of the 232 elders living there became infected with the virus. Six ultimately died of lab-confirmed COVID-19 in the single-building residence known as Union Avenue 163rd Street, city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene data shows.

Testing showed an infection rate of 6.4%. Overall, 2.9% of the city’s 8.1 million residents have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic’s arrival in March, though estimates of the percentage of New Yorkers infected are much higher.

All told, some 47 NYCHA developments — 22 of which are seniors only — recorded COVID-positive rates higher than 2.9% from March to mid-May. NYCHA oversees 302 developments across the city.

All but two of the 47 developments — including the Union Avenue senior residence— rely on old mechanical ventilation systems that NYCHA had promised to fix by last year. And all but two of NYCHA’s 41 seniors-only developments use the system.

Across the city, 240 NYCHA developments employ mechanical exhaust roof fans to circulate air out of apartments. The systems, which serve 260,000 residents, are prone to breakdown, and the ducts leading from apartments to the roof often are clogged with decades of dust and debris.

Meanwhile, NYCHA has prioritized a list of buildings — including Union Avenue — for immediate roof fan replacement. But the plan is now off track and far behind schedule.

A ‘Perfect Storm’ Brewing

Experts say poor indoor airflow due to lousy ventilation systems, along with crowded conditions caused by other NYCHA ills such as broken elevators, contributes to the spread of COVID-19 — and amplifies underlying medical conditions such as asthma that make people more vulnerable to the virus.

“It’s a perfect storm for people to get COVID-19,” Dr. Abraar Karan of Harvard’s School of Public Health, who’s working with Massachusetts health officials on the response to COVID-19. “Now they’re crowding into the apartments that are not well ventilated, getting into elevators. These are situations with the most contact risk.”

On Monday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted an advisory citing new evidence that coronavirus can be spread beyond six feet indoors. “These transmissions occurred within enclosed spaces that had inadequate ventilation,” the advisory noted.

Karan is particularly worried about how this will play out as the weather cools, flu season arrives and many tenants, especially the elderly and ailing, are stuck indoors.

“When you’re indoors a lot more as we head into the fall and the winter, we’re going to need better ventilation,” he said. “I would not be surprised that this leads to a potential indoor spread.”

More than 7,800 NYCHA tenants tested positive for COVID-19 during the initial runup of the virus between March 1 and May 11, according to city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene data. During that time, the deaths of 1,241 NYCHA tenants were deemed either lab confirmed or probable COVID-19.

Airflow Issues Eyed

In releasing this data, health officials pointed out that the share of COVID-19 cases among public housing tenants was proportionate to NYCHA’s representation in the city’s overall population: 4.4%. The agency did not note the 47 developments with disproportionately high rates of infection.

It’s impossible to know for certain whether inadequate airflow in apartments contributed to higher-than-average infection rates in the 22 NYCHA senior developments.

Some 25 senior developments registered average or below average infection rates, including two that have natural ventilation — meaning they rely solely on opening windows for airflow.

But 95% of the 47 NYCHA developments that registered a higher-than-average rate depend on mechanical exhaust ventilation systems to circulate apartment air.

Woodson Houses
The Woodson Houses for seniors in Brownsville, Brooklyn
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

A NYCHA development on East 152nd Street at Courtland Avenue in The Bronx that’s mostly seniors logged a 9% infection rate, with 35 of 378 tenants testing positive March and mid-May, data shows. No residents died of COVID-19 during that period.

Six tenants died of lab-confirmed COVID at a seniors-only development in Upper Manhattan known as UPACA Site 5. Some 17 of the building’s 212 elderly tenants contracted the virus — an infection rate of 8%.

At the seniors-only Woodson Houses in Brooklyn, tests showed 23 of 452 elders were infected with the virus, for a rate of 5%. Eleven residents of the Brownsville development died of lab-confirmed COVID-19.

Work Behind Schedule

The Metro Industrial Area Foundation, a coalition of housing advocates that sued NYCHA to eradicate mold in the apartments of tenants with asthma and other respiratory ailments, had raised a red-flag about poor ventilation, long before COVID arrived.

The virus, the group has said, makes the need to fix the ventilation even more crucial.

As THE CITY reported in August, the authority originally promised to repair all busted roof fans by May 2019. But NYCHA officials abandoned that plan and, instead, vowed to replace all of the system’s roof fans — 10,000 across 243 developments.

Now the new plan is off track after questions arose about the safety record and financial history of the contractor NYCHA had hired to do much of the work. That contract is now on hold.

As a result, the first phase of the campaign — which was supposed to start in July with 38 developments targeted for fan replacement by June 2021 — has yet to begin.

Some 940 tenants in the 38 developments in line for new ventilation systems tested positive for COVID-19 last spring. The virus killed 61 of them between March and mid-May, a review of NYCHA and health records shows.

“It should have been fixed a decade ago and it wasn’t,” Susan Popkin, senior fellow at the non-partisan Urban Institute, said of NYCHA’s ventilation woes. “They don’t have that money now and they didn’t have it before the pandemic, so all the problems with NYCHA before that you have documented are playing out now in a way that is creating more risk for the staff and the tenants.”

NYCHA installed a ventilation fan on the roof of a Wald Houses building, Aug. 19, 2020.
A ventilation fan on the roof of Manhattan housing development
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In a response to questions from THE CITY, NYCHA emphasized that it is pressing on with the plan to replace the 10,000 fans as soon as possible.

NYCHA’s statement said the authority is currently evaluating bids of several contractors and requesting the Department of Investigation do background checks on each.

“Phase I has begun and we are currently completing the necessary engineering work,” the statement said. “Thus far, 34 developments (130 buildings) have either been assigned engineers to handle roof fan replacement; a contracting company to handle roof fan replacement; or an internal team assembled by NYCHA to handle roof fan replacement.”

But because the ventilation systems have yet to be fixed, the poor ventilation creates an environment that can exacerbate asthma.

And many of these developments — particularly in The Bronx — are located in neighborhoods with high rates of asthma, THE CITY’s examination of state data revealed.

Health Department asthma rate records for 2012 through 2014, the latest years available, show that 20 of the 38 developments NYCHA prioritized for immediate roof fan replacement are located in ZIP codes with rates of asthma hospitalizations above the citywide average. Meanwhile, 18 of the 20 also have asthma emergency room visits above the citywide rate.

Mold and Asthma Spread

Take the Mill Brook Houses, a 61-year-old Bronx development that relies on mechanical exhaust ventilation. Mill Brook is located in a Mott Haven ZIP code with the city’s highest rates of both asthma hospitalizations and asthma ER visits.

The 10454 ZIP code registered an asthma hospitalization rate of 99 per 10,000 residents, far above the citywide average of 27.9. The rate of asthma ER-related visits there is 482.9 per 10,000 residents, far outpacing the citywide average of 135.

Between March 1 and mid-May, 76 of Mill Brook’s 2,772 tenants tested positive for the virus, a 2.7% rate, slightly below the overall city percentage since March. Five Mill Brook tenants’ deaths were deemed lab-confirmed COVID-19.

The Mill Brook Houses in Mott Haven, Bronx, Sept. 1, 2020.
The Mill Brook Houses in Mott Haven, The Bronx
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Mill Brook became a test case for the effect of poor ventilation on asthma as part of an ongoing court settlement with NYCHA.

Authority management and then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg promised to remedy a chronic mold problem in developments all over the city as part of the deal with Metro IAF. That was in December 2013.

By 2016, Metro IAF was pressing NYCHA to fix broken roof fans to improve airflow in apartments to help staunch mold growth. NYCHA initially agreed to fix every malfunctioning fan by May 2019.

As part of that effort, Microecologies, a consultant hired by NYCHA under the court decree, discovered an alarming situation in one of Mill Brook’s buildings: Five of 10 roof fans that were supposed to keep apartments ventilated there didn’t function, according to Microecologies’ report.

A Football-Sized Roach Nest

As for the Mill Brook fans that did function, the ventilator ducts leading from apartments to the roof had become clogged with years of dust and junk. In one, Microecologies found airflow blocked by a wayward brick, in another by a football-sized nest of roaches.

The lack of airflow in most of the building’s apartments led to a build-up of moisture in kitchens and bathrooms. That triggered the mold that aggravates asthma.

A Bronx Mill Brook Houses resident had a non-working vent in their bathroom, Sept. 1, 2020.f
A non-working vent in Mill Brook Houses bathroom
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

NYCHA fixed four of the five busted fans, but didn’t follow up with the duct cleanup in that building until three months ago. In a report on the Mill Brook inspection filed in the court case, Microecologies made clear the authority needed to upgrade roof fans and clean out all the ducts across the Mill Brook development.

“We estimate that exhaust ventilation problems in bathrooms (which directly result in excessive shower vapor condensation) account for (or contribute to) more than 50% of mold problems in NYCHA housing,” Microecologies officials wrote in a report filed as part of the court case.

As of last week, Mill Brook was on the list of the first set of developments scheduled to get new fans.

‘It Stopped Working Again’

Tenants interviewed recently at Mill Brook told THE CITY that NYCHA had gone years without cleaning the network of ducts throughout the buildings.

They were surprised when NYCHA crews showed up in July to clear out the system. By then, the virus had already peaked in New York City.

“I’ve never had the vent cleaned since I’ve been here,” said tenant Jacklyn Corley, 59, who moved into Mill Brook in 1998.

Mill Brook Houses resident Jacklyn Corley said NYCHA workers recently made fixes to a vent in her bathroom in the Bronx apartment, Sept. 1, 2020.
Mill Brook Houses resident Jacklyn Corley
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Corley said the vent in her apartment now seems to function, but other tenants said even after a recent cleanup they were still getting no air circulation in their bathrooms.

In some cases, mold proved persistent. One tenant, who did not want to give her name, said, “It was working for a minute and then it stopped working again.”

Tenant Robert Nevarez, 58, recounted his struggles to get NYCHA to eradicate recurring mold that keeps coming back inside the tiny bathroom of his two-bedroom apartment. Last week, his vent was once again drawing no air out of his bathroom.

He said NYCHA first came to clean up the green-black mold that had begun to accumulate in the corner of his bathroom in 2018. But Nevarez said NYCHA “never fixed the underlying problem, which was the leak that’s buckling the wall.”

On Aug. 7, NYCHA workers returned to the apartment and cleaned out the vent. The form they left behind promising to return read: “NYCHA has found mold, water damage, and/or a moisture level indicating excessive moisture or a possible leak. Inspection found mold.”

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