10th death added to Legionnaires’ outbreak in Genesee

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan’s health department on Friday confirmed a 10th death in the 2014-15 Flint-area spike in Legionnaires’ disease cases.

The death occurred in August, three months after a state health official declared the outbreak over in an internal memo made public last month.

Through a statewide review of Legionnaires’ disease cases, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services discovered a Shiawassee County resident died in August after being hospitalized in a Genesee County medical center.

The additional death from Legionnaires’ disease brings the total to 10 in Genesee County between June 2014 and October 2015 — a time period that corresponds with the city’s use of Flint River water. In total, 88 people contracted the respiratory illness, which comes from a water-borne bacteria.

State health officials “combed through” more than 400 statewide cases of Legionnaires’ disease in 2014 and 2015 to find any additional links to the Genesee outbreak and only the one Shiawassee County case turned up, said Dr. Eden Wells, Michigan’s chief medical officer.

“I don’t anticipate finding any more cases at this point,” Wells said Friday.

Wells said the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak “appears associated with the change in the water.”

But scientists have not been able to prove the Flint River’s chemistry is to blame because a third of the cases were individuals who live outside of the city water system and were not hospitalized in Flint, Wells said.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about Legionella, and why it likes to hang out and why at certain times it (transmits) to patients, and at other times, it does not,” Wells said.

Wayne State University has launched a study to evaluate the possible connection between changes in the water system and the recent disease outbreak.

The Detroit News reported Feb. 24 that Flint’s water had never been tested for Legionella bacteria, despite being identified in fall 2014 as a possible source of the disease outbreak. Experts say the lack of a water evaluation made it impossible to know if the city’s new water source contributed to the respiratory disease outbreak.

The respiratory disease is caused in warmer months by a bacteria in fresh water that leads to a severe form of pneumonia and can be found in large plumbing systems, hot tubs and air-conditioning units.

Death followed declaration

The additional Legionnaires’ disease death came after the DHHS communicable disease division director declared the outbreak “over” in a June 4, 2015, memo sent to state, county and federal health officials, according to records obtained by The Detroit News.

The state and Genesee County health departments have been criticized for not publicly disclosing the outbreak while it occurred. The public wasn’t informed about the outbreak until Jan. 13, when Gov. Rick Snyder announced he had just learned about it two days prior.

Last week, Snyder asked the state’s auditor general to investigate the health department for its role in responding to the Legionnaires’ outbreak.

Government emails disclosed through public records requests show state health and environmental regulators were aware as early as October 2014 of the uptick in cases.

Emails from Snyder’s office show his former deputy press secretary was told about the outbreak in late January 2015, nearly a year before the governor says he was informed.

Regulator sounded alarm

Additional DEQ emails obtained Friday by The News through a Freedom of Information Act request shows a water regulator at the agency was alarmed by the outbreak in March 2015.

DEQ field operations section chief Richard Benzie sent three municipal drinking water regulators a March 11 email with a six-point plan for responding the Legionnaires’ outbreak.

“We need a plan of action fast,” Benzie wrote.

Benzie’s plan included informing “DEQ management,” consider seeking assistance from the Centers for Disease and Prevention and “determine how long” DHHS, Genesee and the city of Flint have “been aware of the increased cases of Legionella.”

Among the recipients of Benzie’s email were DEQ district engineer Mike Prysby, Liane Shekter Smith, the former chief of DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, and Stephen Busch, the Lansing and Jackson district supervisor for the drinking water office.

Shekter Smith was fired last month for her role in the Flint lead contamination water crisis, and Busch remains suspended with full pay for his role.

On March 12, 2015, email records show Benzie forwarded his Legionnaires’ action plan to two officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, water regulators Thomas Poy and Jennifer Crooks in the EPA’s Chicago office.

“Please treat this information as confidential at this point as I am not sure when and who will bring this matter forward for public knowledge,” Benzie wrote. “But I thought you should get a heads up that another problem could become public soon.”

Two weeks later, Busch and Prysby were involved in a phone call with Poy, Crooks and other EPA officials about the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak, according to previously disclosed emails.

Federal officials offered to send a Legionella bacteria expert to Flint to try to trace the source of the outbreak — an offer DEQ officials never took them up on, according to an EPA spokeswoman.

Poy, the ground and drinking water branch chief of EPA Region 5, told those on the March 26 phone call that “the state is currently figuring out a communication-with-the-public plan,” according to Crooks’ notes.

Snyder’s Jan. 13 press conference confirmed the outbreak to the public 19 months after it started.

The governor said last month the state health department will be reviewed after officials failed to alert residents when they first learned about the rise in cases.


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Twitter: @ChadLivengood