Disease Outbreaks & Biological Emergencies

A black and white photo of a mother caring for her ill child, who is lying in bed.

New York City may be affected by naturally occurring disease outbreaks. Additionally, biological agents, such as bacteria or viruses, or toxins derived from plants or animals, can cause injury or death.

Know the Terms

A pandemic occurs over a wide geographic area and affects a large segment of the population. An influenza pandemic is a global outbreak that results from the emergence of a new influenza virus that can cause serious illness in humans and spreads easily from person to person.

A biological emergency involves the exposure to bacteria and viruses that can cause a serious illness. Usually, these biological agents must be inhaled, absorbed through the skin, or eaten to make you sick.

Types of public health emergencies:

  • COVID-19, a strain of coronavirus, is a severe respiratory syndrome and infectious disease. Its symptoms include but are not limited to fever, cough, shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell. However, not all people have symptoms when they have COVID-19. Learn more about COVID-19.
  • Pandemic flu is caused by a virus that is "novel" (new) or different from flu viruses that circulated previously. Pandemics can cause serious illness in humans and spreads easily from person to person. Learn more about pandemics
  • Anthrax is caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis. It is an infectious disease that most commonly occurs in wild and domestic livestock (such as cattle, sheep and goats), but infections can occur in humans as well. Learn more about anthrax
  • Smallpox is a virus that used to cause one of the most feared illnesses in history. Because the United States stopped widespread smallpox vaccinations in the 1970s, most people no longer carry immunity against the disease; any re-introduction of smallpox could result in a global pandemic. Learn more about smallpox
  • Burkholderia: Melioidosis and Glanders are infectious diseases caused by the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei or Pseudomonas pseudomallei. These harmful bacteria are found in unsanitary water or moist soil. They are transmitted to animals and humans by ingestion or inhalation. Learn more about burkholderia
  • Plague is a potentially severe disease caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestisLearn more about plague
  • Botulism is a serious illness caused by an extremely powerful poison called botulinum toxin that paralyzes the muscles. The toxin is produced by a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum. Botulism develops if a person ingests the toxin or if the bacteria grow and release a toxin in a wound or in the intestines. Botulism cannot be spread from person to person. Learn more about botulism
  • Viral Hemorrhagic Fever (Ebola virus disease) is a severe, often fatal disease that affects humans and some animals (monkeys, gorillas and chimpanzees). It is caused by the Ebola virus. Ebola spreads by direct contact through broken skin or mouth, eyes or nose. It does not spread through the air. The chances of the average New Yorker getting Ebola are extremely low; however, an Ebola outbreak in another part of the world could potentially affect New York City, given its international connectivity. Learn more about Ebola

What to Do Before a Public Health Emergency

  • Make an emergency plan.
  • Gather emergency supplies.
  • Make sure your immunizations and medical records are up to date.
  • Avoid contact with those who are sick.
  • Frequently wash hands with soap or an alcohol-based cleaner.

What to Do During a Public Health Emergency

  • Cover coughs and sneezes.
  • Stay home if experiencing cough or fever.
  • Avoid contact with those who are sick.
  • Frequently wash hands with soap or an alcohol-based cleaner.
  • Sign up for Notify NYC, the City of New York's official, free emergency communications program. Register for emergency notifications by getting the free Notify NYC mobile application, visiting NYC.gov/notifynyc, contacting 311 (212-639-9675 for Video Relay Service, or TTY: 212-504-4115) or following @NotifyNYC on Twitter. (Notify NYC messages are available through many formats, including email, text messages, telephone, the Notify NYC website, RSS, Twitter, and American Sign Language videos.)
  • Tune in to local TV and radio for health officials' announcements.

What the City Does

New York City regularly monitors and responds to disease outbreaks and biological events. The City's Department of Health & Mental Hygiene has a state-of-the-art, 24/7 system for monitoring disease patterns. The "syndromic surveillance" system involves routinely tracking emergency room visits, ambulance runs and pharmacy sales to provide an early warning signal of a possible outbreak. It is one of the first in the nation and is a model for the rest of the country.

In the event of a health emergency (e.g., emerging infectious disease or bioterrorist attack), the City may open Points of Dispensing (PODs), which are temporary locations to distribute life-saving medical countermeasures, such as antibiotics or vaccines. If PODs are activated, you may locate the one closest to you by listening to local media, calling 311 (212-639-9675 for Video Relay Service, or TTY: 212-504-4115), visiting 311 online or NYC.gov.

In response to COVID-19, the City has opened testing sites throughout the five boroughs. Learn more about the testing sites and find a location near you.

The City uses several forms of media to alert the public in an emergency, including Notify NYC, the City of New York's official emergency communications program.

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