Greg B. Smith, THE CITY
“THE CITY (www.thecity.nyc) is an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.”
A consultant repeatedly urged public housing managers to overhaul decrepit airflow systems in 240 complexes across the city. But NYCHA officials, who insisted there was no danger, did nothing for weeks as the virus raged.
The city’s public housing authority has long insisted that weak air circulation inside aging apartments did not contribute to the spread of COVID-19 among tenants during the pandemic’s peak last year.
But internal emails obtained by THE CITY reveal some top NYCHA managers were warned repeatedly as pandemic raged through the five boroughs last spring that poorly ventilated apartments could accelerate the transmission of the virus that’s killed more than 33,000 New Yorkers.
A consultant hired by the authority urged NYCHA managers in notes week after week to kickstart a stalled plan to improve air circulation in bathrooms and kitchens by fixing old mechanical ventilation systems plagued by busted roof fans and clogged air ducts.
At the time, the effort to repair the archaic systems — installed in 240 of NYCHA’s 320 developments — had fallen far behind schedule, leaving tens of thousands of residents vulnerable.
The consultant, Microecologies Inc., conveyed a simple message to three top housing authority managers: fix this problem right away.
On April 28, 2020, for example, as the seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases hovered around 2,400 in New York City, Microecologies fired off an email under the subject line, “Reducing Potential for NYCHA Resident Exposure to COVID19.”
“As we conduct further research we see further evidence suggesting a high risk of COVID19 transmission within families, especially in small under-ventilated spaces such as NYCHA bathrooms used by multiple family members,” the email states. “And we see further evidence that this risk can be substantially reduced by increasing exhaust ventilation in these bathrooms.”
While the emails were directed to NYCHA managers dealing with the mold cleanup, the notes also suggest that NYCHA Chairperson Greg Russ was informed of the discussion.
Barbara Brancaccio, a NYCHA spokesperson, would not specify what Russ was told about the issue other than to say he was involved in many meetings about the roof-fan effort.
“Chair Russ has met with our partners multiple times to discuss COVID-19 and mold remediation, and has made it clear that NYCHA is duty-bound to follow the guidance of federal, state and city health organizations, not unconfirmed reports that have not been validated by any health official,” she wrote.
Mold Spurred Fan Plan
Brancaccio also would not address THE CITY’s questions about whether NYCHA General Manager Vito Mustaciulo was made aware of the consultant’s concerns about COVID-19 spread in poorly ventilated units.
In sworn testimony during a City Council hearing last fall Mustaciulo said he had “not been party” to any conversations about COVID and airflow — and that he had “not personally seen any reports that directly tie roof fans and adequate ventilation in bathrooms to the spread of coronavirus.”
At the Oct. 7 hearing, Mustaciuolo said the ventilations systems are not like HVAC set-ups and do not recirculate air in apartments. However, the roof fans — when functioning — draw air out of bathrooms and kitchens.
Asked if he believed poor ventilation contributed to the transmission of COVID in NYCHA developments Mustaciuolo gave a definitive response: “No sir, I do not.”
Microecologies was hired by NYCHA as part of a lawsuit aimed at cleaning up toxic mold from public housing. The firm’s executives have declined to comment on their work with NYCHA throughout, and did so again when contacted recently by THE CITY.
In a written response to THE CITY’s questions about the emails warning about this problem, Brancaccio emphasized that NYCHA eventually adopted Microecologies’ recommendation to install more powerful roof fans as a stop-gap measure. But she dismissed the consultant’s concerns about ventilation and COVID-19.
“Representatives of Microecologies are not COVID-19 experts, nor are they public health officials,” she wrote.
NYCHA has long been aware of problems with poor circulation in bathrooms and kitchens that allows moisture to build up and create mold. A 2013 class-action lawsuit settlement put NYCHA under court oversight to address its long-standing mold crisis.
By 2018, NYCHA had promised to repair busted roof fans and unclog ducts at the 240 developments that rely on mechanical ventilation systems by May 2019. But those plans went astray, and when COVID-19 hit, only a handful of fans had actually been fixed.
That’s because, as THE CITY has reported, in early 2019 NYCHA managers changed their mind and decided to replace rather than just repair the fans, promising to get that job started by the fall of 2019.
Numerous delays followed and then the pandemic struck, putting the roof fan/duct cleanup on hold. As the number of COVID-19 cases and fatalities began to climb dramatically in March and into April, the ventilation fix-up fell further behind schedule.
Early Concerns Raised
In the middle of this effort was Microecologies, a Manhattan-based firm that NYCHA had hired as an expert in remediation of mold as part of the lawsuit settlement.
Soon after the pandemic struck, Microecologies began raising concerns about the spread of the virus in developments relying on the old mechanical systems. There are some statistical indications that those concerns were on point.
A study by the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene of COVID spread among NYCHA tenants from March through May 11, 2020, found 7,800 NYCHA tenants systemwide tested positive for the virus during that time, and that the deaths of 1,241 tenants were deemed either lab confirmed or probable COVID-19.
An examination by THE CITY last year found 47 developments had COVID-positive rates higher than the 2.9% citywide average in April and May 2020. All but two of those developments relied on the old mechanical ventilation system that sparked Microecologies officials’ concerns.
In the early days of the pandemic, evidence began to mount that poorly ventilated enclosed spaces accelerated the transmission of COVID-19.
In early April, Microecologies began forwarding literature and medical studies about this to the three top NYCHA officials dealing with the mold cleanup: Elena Tenchikova, senior director Office of Mold Assessment and Remediation, Vlada Kenniff, now vice president for energy and sustainability, and William Holm, a NYCHA environmental analyst.
Microecologies initially raised concerns about the potential infection of workers doing duct cleaning and fan replacement as the virus swept the city. They forwarded to NYCHA managers a video about the proper way to wear personal protective gear and links to five articles on the spread of COVID-19 indoors.
In an April 2, 2020, email exchange between Microecologies and NYCHA managers, Kenniff wrote that the managers were “considering” forwarding the information to Russ and Mustaciullo. It’s not known if that happened: Brancaccio declined to say.
Urgent Call for Action
In email to Tenchikova, Kenniff and Holm sent five days later, Microecologies makes clear the plans to clean out the air ducts were now off schedule: “We all know at this point that cleaning and installing the dampers in the laterals will very likely be delayed (and) that the airflow distribution may not be equally distributed as we would like.”
At the time, Microecologies had concluded that because of the restrictions to workers entering buildings during the COVID-19 lockdown, cleaning out ducts was unlikely to happen as planned. They suggested a new approach: install fans powerful enough to work even with clogged ducts.
Three days later, on April 10, Kenniff embraced this idea in an email to Holms and Tenchikova, writing, “In light of COVID and given the fans are variable speed and given that it might be a while that we will be able to go back into apartments to do lateral cleanings I think it’s important to consider Microecologies recommendations.”
In an April 28 email, Microecologies presented bullet points about the spread of COVID-19 in enclosed spaces, including “COV can remain viable in aerosols for at least 2-3 hours” — and “aerosols from infected persons may pose an inhalation threat even at considerable distance and in small areas with high occupancy — particularly if there is poor ventilation.”
“Based on all of this evidence,” Microecologies officials wrote, “it is clear that we need to continue to work together to do whatever we can to maximize exhaust ventilation in these bathrooms… and to do whatever possible to expedite the implementation of the exhaust ventilation project portfolio-wide.”
In that email, Microecologies officials wrote that they were looking forward to working with the NYCHA managers and “getting whatever help possible from Chairman Russ in expediting our progress on this project.”
It’s not clear whether Russ was provided the information and recommendations Microecologies had sent.
By May 1, Microecologies pressed its plan to install the more powerful fans as a way of improving circulation in bathrooms and kitchens.
In an email to Holm, Tenchikova and Kenniff, Microecologies wrote that more powerful fans would “provide maximum exhaust ventilation to reduce the potential for residents (and worker) exposure to COVID-19 in these small NYCHA bathrooms used by multiple family members.”
NYCHA Finally Acts
By May 5, the NYCHA managers were embracing Microecologies’ plan, referring to one of the firm’s prior emails “outlining the logic and evidence supporting the need to provide substantial additional exhaust ventilation in NYCHA bathrooms to reduce the potential for the transmission of COVID-19 between family members.”
The next month, NYCHA began installing the more powerful fans in Wald Houses in the East Village — the first of several developments targeted for roof fan upgrades.
As of Thursday, 3,963 new roof fans had been installed — or about 47% of the 8,300 fans NYCHA intends to replace system-wide. In December, NYCHA hired four vendors to begin cleaning out clogged air ducts.
In defending the authority’s response to COVID-19, Brancaccio wrote, “NYCHA has taken all measures recommended by federal, state and city health organizations to keep residents safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19. From the beginning of the pandemic, NYCHA has regularly updated work order protocols and has provided ongoing information to residents based on CDC guidance for safe practices.”
She noted NYCHA adopted Microecologies’ recommendations on the use of more powerful fans after the pilot program at Wald “demonstrated that oversized roof fans are more effective in de-clogging built-up debris in lateral vents, as we had suspended in-unit vent cleaning due to social distancing requirements.”
“As these emails demonstrate, she added, “NYCHA has tried to work collaboratively with these partners.”
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.