Flint — The former deputy to state Health and Human Services director Nick Lyon testified Thursday that his former boss contradicted himself about when he first learned how serious the Legionella outbreak was in Flint.
During a preliminary exam for his ex-boss, who is charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of an 85-year-old man, Timothy Becker said he first learned about the severe spike in Legionella in 2014 but didn’t know exact numbers and data. The outbreak, which caused 12 deaths in 2014-15, wasn’t publicly announced until January 2016.
A recording of a 2016 joint legislative committee hearing, in which Lyon testified, was played in court. In the recording, the director said he didn’t really learn about the seriousness of the Legionella outbreak until July 2015, six months after a January 2015 email and discussion that included Becker. Lyon said that email came from Gov. Rick Snyder’s then-chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore.
“It just surprised me,” Becker said. “I didn’t know how to line that up with the timing as I understood it.”
Becker said the discussions about the seriousness of the outbreak of Legionella in Flint happened in late 2014 and January 2015 in emails that were exchanged between people in the Health and Human Services Department.
In the video played in court, a state senator asked Lyon if his agency’s involvement was too slow. Lyon responded that “from my perspective, we didn’t have enough information to really act. The first I became aware of potentially significant health-related issues (was) brought to my attention by Dennis Muchmore’s email, and certainly we looked into our information at that point.”
Becker said he also listened to an April 2015 interview with Lyon in which the director said he knew about the outbreak.
Also testifying was Dr. Marcus Zervos, an infectious disease specialist with the Henry Ford Health System and a Wayne State University professor of medicine, who said he had “significant” disagreements with the state over when and how to study the Legionella problem.
Zervos testifed that the change in the city’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River demonstrated a direct connection to those affected by Legionella. He also testified that during a conversation about a delay in the study, Lyon said, “People are going to die of something.”
Zervos said he was trying to sound the alarm about the seriousness of figuring out the problem before people died.
“My opinion is the most plausible, the most likely explanation is that the change in the water was responsible for the increase in Legionnaires’ disease,” Zervos said.
Zervos also testified that the state needed to give the public and medical providers more notice about Legionella to “save lives.”
Todd Flood, a special attorney working to prosecute the case with Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office, sparred repeatedly with Lyon’s attorneys Britt Cobb and Charles Chamberlain over the exhibits and documents and who said what in them.
The longest testimony came from Becker, who talked about Lyon sending an email to himself about the Legionella outbreak in January 2015. He testified that he and Lyon, along with another aide, discussed an extensive report that showed a “significant increase” in Legionella outbreak in 2014 that was three to four times higher than normal.
Becker also talked about how “anxious” he and Lyon were about the report on the Legionella outbreak and admitted that a public warning could have been issued. Under cross-examination, Becker said scientists from the health and human services department didn’t signal immediate harm when first discussing Legionella.
Schuette’s office has charged Lyon and four others with killing Robert Skidmore, 85, of Genesee Township by deliberately failing to warn the public about the Legionella outbreak.
The manslaughter charge carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison and a $7,500 fine. The state’s health director also is charged with misconduct in office for allegedly trying to cover up the source of the Legionnaires’ outbreak, which is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Legal experts say the prosecution faces high hurdles in trying to prove a direct link between what Lyon did or failed to do and Skidmore’s death in December 2015.
Besides the 12 fatalities, 79 other people were sickened by Legionnaires’ disease in 2014-15. Experts and state health officials have debated whether the Legionnaires’ outbreak should be blamed on the April 2014 switch to Flint River water as the city’s drinking source, which led to lead contamination and other issues, or on McLaren Flint Hospital, where many of the cases originated.
During the preliminary exam, which continues Friday in 67th District Court, Schuette’s legal team aims to persuade Judge David Goggins that there is probable cause for Lyon to go to trial.
Email records released by Snyder’s administration show Lyon was aware of a spike in Legionella — bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, a form of pneumonia — as early as January 2015 but didn’t put out a public alert. Snyder informed the public about the Legionnaires’ outbreak in January 2016.
Lyon has said he knew about Legionnaires for months but wanted to wait until investigators in the Health and Human Services Department finished their own probe.
Skidmore’s death certificate shows that he died Dec. 13, 2015, from “end stage congestive heart failure.” The certificate listed diabetes as the only contributing cause to the death.
But Schuette’s charging document indicates that a McLaren Flint Hospital doctor on June 2, 2015, collected a sample from Skidmore that tested positive for Legionella and that the Genesee County medical examiner will “not refute the medical doctor’s findings that Legionnaires’ disease was a cause of Robert Skidmore’s death.”
One witness the prosecution has said it will call is retired state epidemiologist Corinne Miller, who is serving one year of probation for willful neglect of duty under a plea deal. Schuette’s office has said Miller will testify that she told Lyon in January 2015 and September 2015 about the outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease and the possibility that Flint’s water was a possible source of the outbreak.