Legionnaires’ death toll in Flint rises by 2 to 12

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The state of Michigan increased the death toll from Legionnaires’ disease in the Flint area by two on Monday, two days before Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon is set to testify before Congress.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said the number of deaths from the respiratory disease is now 12 out of 91 cases. The updated report included three new cases of Legionnaires’ disease, with two of them resulting in deaths.

The two additional Legionnaires’ disease deaths occurred between June and November of last year, after a state health department official declared the outbreak “over” in a report that was not made public until February.

The state health department’s lack of public notice about the Legionnaires’ outbreak over 17 months in 2014 and 2015 has drawn scrutiny from state lawmakers and members of Congress. Lyon will likely face questions about the matter Wednesday when he appears before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, plans to raise the issue again Tuesday during the fourth public hearing of a special legislative committee investigating the Flint water crisis.

“We’re just learning that two more Flint residents died from Legionnaires’ — months after the fact,” Ananich said Monday in a statement. “Based on that track record, I’m not confident the Department of Health and Human Services can handle another outbreak, never mind this one.”

Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical executive, told The Detroit News last month that health officials believed they had found the final case of the outbreak, when the official death count was increased from nine to 10 after a new case was linked to a Flint-area hospital.

But the health department’s March 17 report prompted a Genesee County hospital to review its records, Wells said.

The unidentified hospital found two cases it thought were reported to the state’s communicable disease database were never received because of a computer glitch, she said.

“It turned out that a hospital looked back and said, ‘Wait a minute, we actually had two you didn’t have,’ ” Wells said in an interview Monday.

Wells said the computer glitch has been fixed as a result of the health department’s ongoing investigation of the Genesee County Legionnaires’ outbreak.

A third new Legionnaires’ case was discovered after health officials found an individual with the communicable disease from a different county who also was previously hospitalized in Genesee County, Wells said.

“When there’s an outbreak, it’s not uncommon to find, even years later, data that can link back to an outbreak,” Wells told The News.

All of the case and death increases occurred in the May-October 2015 period, according to the health department. The number of cases now stands at 46 Legionnaires’ cases and seven deaths, up from 43 cases and five deaths, according to an April 8 report.

The number of cases and deaths in the June 2014-March 2015 period remains unchanged at 45 cases and five deaths.

The state’s investigation has identified a common source of exposure to the Legionella bacteria for 50 individuals of the 91 total confirmed cases. It is a hospital in Flint that is served by Flint’s municipal water system, which switched back to Detroit’s Lake Huron water in October.

Although the state won’t identify the hospital, The Detroit News confirmed earlier that it is McLaren Regional Medical Center. A hospital spokeswoman said in January that McLaren took aggressive action and testing that showed the water is now “well within safety and quality standards.”

The hospital hired a Legionnaires’ consultant who argued the city’s lead-contaminated water likely led to the outbreak of pneumonia cases.

“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, previously told The Detroit News.

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 state health department has said it can’t conclude the Flint outbreak is related to the switch to river water in April 2014 that eventually led to lead-contaminated drinking water.

DHHS has partnered with Wayne State University, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Genesee County Health Department on increased surveillance for Legionnaires’ disease, Wells said.

Wells said federal, state and local health officials are “on high alert” and “jumping on any suspect cases” that may arise in Genesee County this spring and summer.


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Twitter: @ChadLivengood

New test results

Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards is scheduled Tuesday to release new water quality results from homes in Flint. In addition, Gov. Rick Snyder’s Flint task force co-chairs Ken Sikkema and Chris Kolb are testifying on their report before a special Flint legislative committee. Come back to detroitnews.com for coverage.