Whitestone senior contracts West Nile

The family of Giuseppe Totino (inset) worries that the elderly man contracted West Nile Virus from mosquitoes in an abandoned property next door to his Whitestone home.
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An elderly Whitestone man became the latest victim in the borough of the West Nile Virus and even though he is expected to make a full recovery, his family and borough leaders are demanding action to prevent it from happening again.

Giuseppe Totino learned that his nearly three-week stay in the hospital last month was caused by the virus, and his son Dominick, who lives next door to his 18th Avenue house, said it was most likely brought upon by an abandoned property on the street.

Dominick Totino, who works as the official photographer for Borough President Helen Marshall, said the owner of the one-family house did not maintain the property, and as a result it became a nesting ground for mosquitoes and other pests.

“He doesn’t go anywhere,” Dominick Totino said of his 86-year-old father. “So it’s not like he got it from somewhere else.”

Giuseppe Totino’s diagnosis came just after the city Department of Health announced an unidentified Queens resident had died from the disease. A spokeswoman for the department said the victim was over 60 years old and they could not determine where he contracted the disease, since he spent time at home and outside New York.

There have been 240 cases of West Nile Virus in New York City from 1999 to last year, but of those cases there were only 27 deaths, according to DOH.

The department did not have a tally of the West Nile cases for this year aside from Totino and the other man.

Whitestone has been sprayed for mosquitoes five times this year, the latest taking place last week, according to the DOH. Northeast Queens was the first target of the city’s spraying when the virus first appeared in the borough 12 years ago.

Pedro Somosa purchased the house six years ago from the Totinos’ longtime neighbors, who moved out of Whitestone. Since then, Somosa has not cut the grass to the front and back lawns, clean the interior and exterior of the property or make necessary repairs to the windows or roof, according to Dominick Totino.

“The weeds were 6 to 7 feet high. I’ve seen raccoons in the backyard,” the photographer said. “Year after year it got to be more prevalent”

The city Department of Buildings has fined Somosa, who could not be reached for comment by press time, $25,000 over the last five years for failing to maintain the house, records from the department show.

Giuseppe Totino, who lives in his home with his wife Marianna, 78, and his 41-year-old daughter, became ill in the middle of August and was sent to St. Francis Hospital in Port Jefferson, L.I., where he remained until Labor Day weekend.

Doctors gave him antibiotics to fight his illness and last week they told the family that he had a case of West Nile Virus. Dominick Totino immediately contacted Marshall and City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) along with the DOH, which inspected the vacant property Friday.

The councilman said he is working to find a way for building inspectors to search the interior of the property for any problems.

“We’re going to work with DOB to get an access warrant,” he said.

A DOH spokeswoman said the inspector found no standing water on the property.

“However high vegetation/weeds were observed throughout the front and rear yard of the vacant property, will be referred to Pest Control Services for further action,” the agency said in a statement.

On Saturday, Somosa arrived with a crew of landscapers who hacked away the shrubs in the rear and cleaned up parts of the property.

“He came here and he tried to apologize,” Dominick Totino said.

Giuseppe Totino is recuperating at home and expected to make a full recovery, according to his son, but he is pushing for the city to take more action against the eyesore next door before more people get sick.

“All the other neighbors are afraid to come out [to their backyards],” he said. “They all feel vulnerable.”

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4546.

Updated 12:57 pm, September 22, 2011
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