Flint – A former official with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services testified Friday that she knew the Legionnaires’ outbreak could be embarrassing for Gov. Rick Snyder because it could be linked to his emergency manager’s decision to switch to the corrosive Flint River.
The comments from Corrine Miller came during the preliminary exam for HHS Director Nick Lyon, who has been charged with involuntary manslaughter on allegations that he caused the death of a Genesee County man by failing to promptly warn the public of a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Flint.
“I said (to an HHS aide) it was a difficult situation. There was an emergency manager who had been involved in some way, shape or form and it could be difficult for the governor’s office with the switch in the (Flint) river (that) would actually be related to the Legionnaires’ outbreak,” Miller, who once led the state Health and Human Services Epidemiology office, told special prosecutor Todd Flood. “I was opining.”
Miller, who retired in 2016 after leading the office for a decade, pleaded no contest last September to willful neglect of duty, a misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail. In exchange for prosecutors dismissing two felonies, Miller agreed to cooperate with investigators probing the Flint water crisis.
She testified that she first took information about the spike in Legionella cases in Genesee County to Lyon on Jan. 28, 2015, in hopes that he would eventually take it to the governor. Miller also testified that she first became aware of the Legionnaires problem on Jan. 23.
It was around that time that Miller saw the “significant increase” in Legionnaires cases. And she knew that action needed to be taken, she said.
“We hadn’t seen a sharp increase like this before in Genesee County,” she said.
Miller also testified that she never heard Lyon say that the public needed to be warned about the Legionnaires’ outbreak.
She was the third witness called in the first two days of the hearing in front of 67th District Court Judge David Goggins; the hearing won’t resume until sometime in October due to scheduling conflicts.
Goggins will decide at the end of testimony if there is enough evidence to try Lyon on the manslaughter charge, plus a charge of misconduct in office.
Prosecutors wrapped up the testimony of Dr. Marcus Zervos, who discussed the challenges he faced with the state getting started studying the Legionella outbreak.
Lyon is one of five people charged with involuntary manslaughter in the December 2015 death of Robert Skidmore, 85. Dozens of people were sickened by Legionnaires’ disease in 2014-15, and 12 died.
In his testimony, Zervos reiterated that the public should have been warned within two weeks of a Legionella outbreak.
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.
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.
During testimony Thursday, Lyon’s former deputy Timothy Becker said his ex-boss had contradicted himself about when he first learned the seriousness of the Legionella crisis.
Becker said he first learned about the severe spike in Legionella in 2014 but didn’t know exact numbers and data.
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.
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.