Lyon denies ordering Flint Legionnaires’ probe in 2015

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The head of Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services denied Monday he attended a meeting about a spike in Legionnaires’ disease cases in Genesee County in January 2015 — a year before he told Gov. Rick Snyder about the deadly outbreak.

Welfare and health Director Nick Lyon refuted a section of a report issued last month by Snyder’s Flint water task force that said he was involved in a January 2015 meeting with Genesee County health officials about the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak.

“That meeting didn’t take place,” Lyon told a legislative committee investigating the Flint water crisis in sworn testimony. “I had a conversation with internal staff, who took that back to the local health department.”

The Flint water task force’s March 23 report said 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.

“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.

Lyon said the governor’s task force received incorrect information and that he wasn’t present for an interview task force members conducted with top staff about the department’s role in the Flint water crisis.

The Department of Health and Human Services never attempted to correct the record about the task force revelation over the past month.

The state health department never informed the public about a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County that killed 12 people and sickened another 79 between June 2014 and October 2015 — a time period that corresponds with Flint’s use of the Flint River for drinking water.

State Sen. Jim Stamas, a Midland Republican and committee chairman, said the health department should have notified the public and governor sooner than it did.

“I think it’s a process that needs to be improved on and we’ve learned some very tough lessons from it,” Stamas told reporters.

During the hearing, Lyon could not explain why a health alert was not sent out to all physicians about the spike in Legionnaires’ cases in Genesee County.

“I do not know why a (health alert) was not sent out,” Lyon said. “We were working with the local health department in their communications on this — and they chose to send an email to specific hospitals in the area.”

In January 2015, state health officials had a phone call with Genesee County health officials about the progress of a slow-moving investigation of the source of Legionella bacteria that causes the water-borne respiratory illness, Lyon said.

“From my recollection of it, what came to me was ‘Can we be a little more forceful?’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ basically,” Lyon told the Joint Select Committee on The Flint Water Public Health Emergency. “There was a phone call that occurred — I believe, I wasn’t on the phone call — and that since then has become that there was a meeting in January that I went in and told the local health department how it’s going to be. That’s not accurate.”

The public health threat of the disease was not publicized until Jan. 13, when Snyder disclosed the outbreak. Snyder has said he learned about the outbreak from Lyon two days prior to the announcement.

Lyon said Monday he was aware of the county health department’s investigation as early as January 2015. But concerns about the outbreak did not “rise to my level again until the September (2015) time frame when we began looking at many of the Flint water issues,” he told lawmakers.

“I was aware Genesee County was doing an outbreak (investigation) in January 2015,” Lyon told reporters after the hearing. “That’s the first inclination, but it wasn’t elevated to me in a consistent fashion.”

Lyon also testified Monday his agency did not alert Genesee County residents about the outbreak because state workers were focused on solving the mysterious source of the spike in cases.

“I believe that it was unique for the circumstance. In some ways, I think they were trying to solve the problem before they elevated it,” Lyon said. “They wanted to have the solution in place.”

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, questioned how the state’s chief medical executive, Dr. Matthew Davis, was never aware of the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in 2014 and early 2015 before his April 2015 departure from the department.

Lyon said the department was focused on the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014 because of the “immense fatality rate” in Africa at the time.

“That seems to be a misplacement of priorities,” Ananich said after the hearing. “At least they should have been doing both.”

Lyon blamed a “breakdown in internal communication” on the state’s top doctor having no knowledge of the outbreak.

“We’re looking at that and that’s part of our investigation,” Lyon told lawmakers. “Certainly we weren’t as aware as we could have been about the Legionella outbreak that was going on in Genesee County.”

State health officials have suspected the river water as the source of many of the cases, but have never been able to scientifically prove it.

Lyon testified alongside Department of Environmental Quality Director Keith Creagh during the hearing in Lansing.

The Department of Health and Human Services is subject of a joint investigation by the state Auditor General’s Office and the agency’s inspector general over its handling Legionnaires’ outbreak. No employees have been disciplined for not alerting the public, Lyon said.

“We’re going to see what that depicts and go from there,” Lyon said of the investigation.

Creagh and Lyon both testified earlier this month about Flint’s lead-contaminated water crisis at a U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The members of Congress did not ask Lyon about the Legionnaires’ outbreak and he only made a passing reference to it in written testimony submitted to the House committee chaired by U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph.

Creagh’s testimony before the committee came less than a week after Attorney General Bill Schuette filed criminal charges against two DEQ employees for allegedly tampering with lead testing results and obstructing a Genesee County health department worker’s investigation of a spike in Legionnaires’ disease cases.

Schuette has said his investigators are looking into the Legionnaires’ outbreak as part of a wide-ranging probe of Flint’s water emergency and the role of multiple government agencies.

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Twitter: @ChadLivengood