Email shows top doc got early warning on Legionnaires'

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The state’s top doctor was among high-level Michigan health officials briefed about a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Genesee County nearly one year before it was publicly disclosed, state records show.

Dr. Matthew Davis, who served on Gov. Rick Snyder’s Flint water task force, has previously denied having any knowledge of the Legionnaires’ outbreak prior to his April 2015 departure from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services as the state’s chief medical executive.

But Davis was a recipient of a Jan. 28, 2015, email sent to top DHHS officials sounding alarms about the respiratory disease infection outbreak in the Flint area — an outbreak that ended up killing 12 people in a span of 18 months in 2014 and 2015. The email was part of more than 303,000 pages of records about Flint’s water crisis the Snyder administration released publicly last week.

Davis, DHHS Chief Deputy Director Tim Becker, Deputy Director Susan Moran and state epidemiologist Corrine Miller were briefed in the email by Communicable Disease Division Director Jim Collins, who said he had concerns about “some elevated levels of Legionella infection that seems, anecdotally at least, to coincide with the change over in Flint water.”

Collins’ email detailed problems the Genesee County Health Department was having investigating the source of the outbreak, including a bureaucratic roadblock that forced a county official to later file a Freedom of Information Act request with the City of Flint to get water test results. The county began to raise concerns to the state about the change in the region’s water source in October 2014, six months after the Flint River was tapped as the source of the municipal water system.

Collins’ 2015 email included potential scenarios about how Legionella — the bacteria that causes the deadly Legionnaires’ respiratory disease — may be growing in Flint’s pipes.

The detailed briefing seems to contradict Davis’ previous statements that the Legionnaires’ outbreak had not risen to his level.

“I was not brought in on conversations regarding Legionella or lead that occurred with respect to Flint,” Davis told The Detroit News for a story published Feb. 22.

Davis, a University of Michigan medical school professor, said Sunday he was never tasked with advising public health officials on Flint’s water problems during his tenure as the state’s top doctor, a post he described as “consultative in nature.”

“As I have stated previously, I was not asked to provide input to discussions regarding the Flint water situation while I served as the chief medical executive,” Davis said in an email to The News.

Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said Sunday “the governor’s office does not have any insight into Dr. Davis’ prior comments.”

Critics of Snyder’s handling of Flint’s water contamination crisis have questioned why the governor would appoint Davis to serve on a task force reviewing and investigating the state agency he worked for during part of the time when the department’s actions were in question.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said Davis’ receipt of the email “validates” his past concerns that Davis had an inherent conflict of interest in serving on Snyder’s task force, which concluded its work by issuing findings in a report on March 23.

“The bigger concern is you see folks at the highest level of DHHS, a year before they became public with those concerns, seeing that there was a problem,” Ananich said Sunday. “Folks knew there was a problem. They’re obviously suggesting there was a potential link to the Flint water — and they did nothing about it.”

Collins’ email to higher-ups in the state health department occurred around the same time period DHHS Director Nick Lyon has acknowledged he became aware of the outbreak.

On Jan. 23, 2015, Collins sent an email to Moran — the department’s deputy director in charge of public health — saying the Legionella outbreak “MAY be related to water quality issues that are very hot topic in Flint right now.”

“Infection control professionals at Flint area hospitals are noting the increase and are asking a lot of questions,” Collins wrote. “This might be the next fuel in the fire for the dialogue on Flint’s water supply. ... ”

Public outcry over Flint’s orange-colored foul-smelling water had become boisterous in January 2015 after the Department of Environmental Quality cited the city for having high levels of total trihalomethanes, or TTHM, a harmful cancer-causing byproduct caused by adding too much bacteria-killing chlorine to disinfect drinking water.

“Wow, this is very concerning,” Moran replied in an email copied to Miller, the state’s top epidemiologist. “At this point, would you typically share info about # of Legionellosis cases with DEQ?”

Collins replied: “We’ve had contact with DEQ staff and have let them know that this is going on.”

State auditors and Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office have been investigating why the state health department never disclosed the deadly Legionnaires’ outbreak to the public or physicians until months after it ended. Snyder disclosed the outbreak in mid-January 2016 after saying he was first briefed about it two days prior by Lyon.

The more than 9,000 pages of DHHS emails released last week include an Aug. 14, 2015, McLaren Regional Medical Center newsletter alerting hospital employees to “an increase in the number of Legionella cases throughout Genesee County.” Fifty of the 91 cases of Legionnaires’ were individuals who visited or were hospitalized at McLaren.

Collins declared the outbreak “over” in a June 2015 memo before the disease ended up claiming seven lives last summer, bringing the death count to 12 people among 91 total cases from June 2014 through October 2015 — a time period that corresponds with Flint’s use of the Flint River for drinking water.

The internal declaration, which was never shared with the public, came after months of behind-the-scenes wrangling between Collins’ office and the Genesee County Health Department over the pace and procedures of the county’s Legionella investigation.

The newly released emails show more bureaucratic squabbling. In his email to Davis, Becker and others, Collins said the local health department’s investigation “frankly has been lacking.”

But Collins also acknowledged Genesee County health officials were running into roadblocks and about to resort to sending the DEQ and Flint’s water department FOIA requests for basic water testing data.

“Not a comfortable situation,” Collins wrote.

State health officials have never conclusively proven the Flint River water — the water that was carried through Flint’s pipes from April 2014 until October 2015 — was the source of the pneumonia-causing Legionella bacteria, which can be found in large plumbing systems, commercial air-conditioning units and hot tubs. It wasn’t until March that scientists announced they would investigate whether changes in the city’s water chemistry contributed to the Legionnaires’ disease cases.

But in Collins’ late January 2015 emails to high-level DHHS officials, he explained how the city’s water treatment woes could be a breeding ground for harmful bacteria like Legionella.

In fall 2014, Flint was adding more chlorine to its drinking water to kill bacteria in the water after outbreaks of E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria. Collins said Flint’s higher level of chlorination used to kill bacteria in the water had posed “a different risk (carcinogen)” from the high levels of TTHM.

“It also seems that all of the abandoned properties in Flint may have ‘dead end’ water lines that are challenging to treat or flush and may contribute to downstream contamination,” Collins wrote in the Jan. 28, 2015, email. “I’m sure that the DEQ is investigating all of this and we’d be interested to hear of their findings to date.”

DEQ officials would later push back at inquiries from the Genesee County Health Department about a Legionella problem in Flint’s drinking water, insisting the water was bacteria-free at the city’s treatment plant, emails records show.

In April, Schuette leveled criminal charges against suspended DEQ drinking water regulators Stephen Busch and Michael Prysby for their roles in Flint not treating its water to prevent toxic lead from leaching into the drinking water supply.

Among the charges the pair face is felony misconduct for “willfully and knowingly misleading” the Genesee County Health Department in its Legionnaires’ disease investigation.


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Twitter: @ChadLivengood