Health director knew of Legionnaires’ a year before gov

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder’s health and welfare director knew about a Flint-area deadly outbreak in Legionnaires’ disease a full year before he informed the governor, according to the Flint water crisis task force’s report.

Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon attended a meeting in January 2015 on a “date unclear” between his staff and employees at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Genesee County Health Department about the spike in Legionnaires’ disease cases, according to the report released Wednesday.

“Nick Lyon directs (Genesee County Health Department) to conduct and complete its evaluation of the causes of the increased Legionellosis cases that had begun to occur in 2014,” the report said.

The task force report is the first confirmation that information about the Legionnaires’ outbreak in Genesee County between June 2014 and October 2015 reached the highest level of the state health agency. Ten died and 78 were sickened by the water-borne respiratory disease.

But Lyon is remaining mum about when he learned about the outbreak, as his agency is now the subject of a new investigation by the state Auditor General’s Office and the inspector general of Health and Human Services.

“We continue to review the task force document and while these internal and external investigations continue, we are unable to respond to the specifics of your questions,” Health and Human Services spokeswoman Jennifer Eisner said Thursday in an email to The News.

The governor called for the new investigation of the health department’s handling of the outbreak after an initial internal review of agency emails and records, Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said.

The governor’s office is still not entirely sure when top officials at the health department knew about the outbreak and what actions were taken, if any.

The spike in Legionnaires’ cases and a suspected link to Flint’s use of river water was never made public until Jan. 13 of this year when Snyder disclosed it at a news conference in Detroit, two days after his staff has said Lyon informed him.

Lyon first briefed the governor about the outbreak on Jan. 11, according to former Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore.

But a question has lingered for more than two months: When did information of the outbreak reach Lyon’s desk.

Records show lower-level department epidemiologists and officials in the communicable disease division knew of the outbreak and a suspected link to the Flint River as early as October 2014.

Dr. Matthew Davis, the state’s former chief medical executive and a member of the Flint water task force, left the department in April 2015 and has said he was never informed about the outbreak.

Davis’ successor, Dr. Eden Wells, took over as the state’s top doctor in May 2015.

Wells recently told The News she learned about the Legionnaires’ outbreak from the head of the Genesee County Health Department in October 2015 after high levels of lead were found in Flint’s drinking water.

Department directors are responsible for the actions of their underlings just “like the governor is responsible for every department,” Adler said.

“But what we really need to know and get a handle on is what was going on within the department as a whole, and then we can make some decisions and make some determinations,” the governor’s spokesman said.

Legionnaires’ 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.

Five of the Legionnaires’ disease deaths occurred after Health and Human Services communicable disease division director Jim Collins 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.

Collins was at the center of an interagency spat with Genesee County’s Jim Henry, email records show.

The task force report noted Collins chastised Henry in a June 8 email for reaching out to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for assistance “without state approval.”

The water task force interviewed Lyon and five other Health and Human Services employees, but did not interview Collins, according to the report.

Task force co-chairman Chris Kolb said the five-man panel’s investigation was limited because the interviews were voluntary. “We had no subpoena power.”

Even before Collins declared the Legionnaires’ scare over after five deaths and 45 cases, a CDC official called the outbreak “one of the largest in the past decade” in the country, records show.

The Snyder-appointed Flint water task force criticized the health department for accepting a “default position” that Flint’s switch to river water was not the source of the bacteria outbreak.

“The fact that these cases occurred while there were several simultaneous concerns about quality and safety of water in Flint should have caused public health staff and leadership at local and state levels to coordinate their actions to ensure a prompt and thorough investigation,” the task force report said.