Michigan officials warned of water, Legionnaires’ link

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

A top aide for Gov. Rick Snyder was notified about a rise in the number of Genesee County Legionnaires’ disease cases — and their possible link to Flint’s water source — in March, more than 10 months before the governor held a press conference to inform the public.

An email string shows communication between Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality and Harvey Hollins, a Snyder aide, on March 13.

The emails, released Thursday by the liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan, show then-DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel laid out the health statistics on Legionnaire’s coming from Genesee County — data that coincided with Flint’s move to its river as a water source. The information also included a county health department official linking the water to the outbreak.

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Snyder hosted a press conference on Jan. 13 in which he disclosed 87 Legionnaires’ disease cases had been reported in Genesee County between June 2014 and November 2015. At least nine deaths have been linked to the outbreak.

At the event, Snyder stated: “The information was just recently presented to me, and I thought it was important to share.”

On Thursday evening, Snyder’s office didn’t dispute the emails’ authenticity and issued a statement repeating the governor’s timeline.

“When Harvey Hollins received the March email, he requested the DEQ look into the concerns, check with its experts, and get the facts,” wrote Snyder spokesman David Murray in an email response to The News. “If the concerns were determined to be credible, the director was to bring the issue to the attention of the Governor.

“The issue was not brought to the Governor’s attention until January of this year. Gov. Snyder has made changes at the department to address these concerns and change the culture to best protect the well-being of Michiganders.”

In March, Hollins, Snyder’s director of urban initiatives, was told:

■More than 40 Legionnaires’ cases had been reported since the previous April. “That’s a significant uptick — more than all the cases in the last five years or more combined.”

■“April/May is usually the start of Legionnaires’ season ... but it is also the point at which the city switched to the Flint River as a (water) source.”

■County health departments are supposed to work to identify the source of Legionnaires’ disease in all cases. “At a January meeting with local hospitals, (Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director) Nick Lyon reportedly directed the county health folks ... to get this done. ... As I’m sitting here today, it still is not done to my knowledge.”

Snyder appointed Hollins in December to be the point person between state agencies and Flint as they worked to address elevated levels of lead in the city’s water system that prompted Snyder to declare a state of emergency.

On Thursday, state Rep. Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills raised the stakes against Snyder.

“If he did know and did nothing, he needs to resign immediately,” Greimel stated in a press release. “If he did not know, he and his administration are guilty of colossal incompetence. Snyder promised he would bring corporate-like efficiency to state government, but the only thing he has brought is corporate like-neglect of everyday Michiganders.”

Last month, Snyder’s former chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, said neither he nor Snyder knew but they should have been told earlier.

“What it does is show is that that information flow ... isn’t always forthcoming,” Muchmore said in mid-January on WKAR-TV’s “Off The Record” show.

“I’m sure he’s angry,” he said about Snyder after a taping of the show. “I’m getting used to it. ... I’m over being angry about it because it doesn’t do any good.”

Legionnaires’ disease is caused in warmer months by a bacteria in warm fresh water that leads to pneumonia and sometimes death. The bacteria can be found in large plumbing systems, hot tubs, air-conditioning units and fountains.

The Detroit News first reported Jan. 23 that an expert on Legionnaires’ disease for McLaren Regional Medical Center said Flint’s contaminated water likely contributed to the Legionnaires’ outbreak in Genesee County, where the bacteria was found in a hospital’s water supply.

Water testing during the outbreak found Legionella bacteria at the Flint hospital, where an expert on the disease concluded the organism likely came from the city’s tainted water.

Further, a state analysis showed that a high number of those diagnosed with Legionnaires’ in Flint had been patients at McLaren Flint in the 14 days prior to showing symptoms.

“The water quality issues, from a microbiological point of view, certainly were a factor in the increase in Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County,” Janet Stout, a research associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering and an expert on Legionnaires’ disease, told The Detroit News. She was hired to help the hospital assess and deal with the Legionella germ found in its water.

Wurfel included correspondence from James Henry, Genesee County’s environmental health supervisor, who linked the Legionnaires’ cases with the switch in water sources. That communication shows frustration on the part of county officials seeking information from Flint regarding the water supply.

“The increase of the illnesses closely corresponds with the time frame of the switch to Flint River water,” Henry wrote. “The majority of the cases reside or have an association with the city. Also, McLaren Hospital identified and mitigated Legionella in their water system. This is rather glaring information and it needs to be looked into now, prior to the warmer summer months when Legionella is at its peak and we are potentially faced with a crisis.”

Part of the email exchange includes a letter by Stephen Busch, a top official in DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, questioning Henry’s theory.

“Conclusions that Legionella is coming from the public water system without the presentation of any substantiating evidence from your epidemiologic investigation appears premature and prejudice(d) toward that end,” he wrote.

Busch is one of two DEQ officials currently suspended while their actions in the Flint water crisis are investigated.

Wurfel also cast doubt on the idea that Flint River water was tied to the Legionnaires’ increase.

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“(Henry)’s made the leap formally in his email that the uptick in cases is directly attributable to the river as a drinking water source — this is beyond irresponsible, given that his department has failed to do the necessary traceback work to provide any conclusive of where the outbreak is sources, and it also flies in the face of the very thing a drinking water system is designed to do,” he wrote.

On Thursday, state Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, issued a statement on the response. “Once again, this administration knew for nearly a year that the lives of people in my community were in danger,” the statement reads. “They knew and they did nothing. Where is the moral fiber? At what point do they care that people are dying and take steps to actually address the issues?”

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, offered a similar assessment.

“To now learn that state officials put their own reputations before public health is disgraceful,” he stated in a press release. “Despite being aware of the outbreak since early in 2015, state officials failed to notify the public. As a result, nine deaths have been tied to the outbreak. This shocking revelation is yet another unfortunate case of state officials failing Flint residents.”


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