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County: State help not needed on Flint-area Legionella

Jonathan Oosting, and Chad Livengood

Lansing – The Genesee County Health Department and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are “perfectly capable” of investigating local Legionella cases without state assistance, County Health Officer Mark Valacak said Friday.

“I think given the circumstances, this is the most appropriate way to move forward,” Valacak told The Detroit News, responding to a confidential court order preventing direct involvement by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The protective order, requested as part of Attorney General Bill Schuette’s ongoing criminal investigation into the Flint water crisis, restricts the state health department from working with other agencies or McLaren Hospital in Flint on Legionella or lead contamination cases.

Gov. Rick Snyder, who this week directed the department to challenge the order in court, contends it is “interfering” with the state’s ability to track cases of deadly Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County.

“That’s our perception of what could happen because of the order and that’s why we’re appealing,” Snyder said Friday after speaking at a graduation ceremony in Lansing for new Michigan State Police troopers.

But the order has not held up the investigation into six local Legionnaires’ disease cases confirmed so far this year, said Valacak, who noted the local health department is working directly with CDC experts and has access to a CDC lab.

“The state has always been partners in investigations like this, but this has been a very challenging situation, and there were times we weren’t sure that public health was the No. 1 priority of some of the staff at the state,” he said.

Schuette’s criminal probe has so far resulted in charges against eight state employees. Two health department workers, now suspended with pay, are accused of burying a report showing a significant year-over-year spike in lead levels in Flint children’s blood. A department official, since retired, is accused of ordering an employee to delete emails related to the report.

Genesee County Judge Geoffrey Neithercut, who issued the order, “recognized MDHHS is the subject of a criminal investigation and should not be performing any investigation of the legionella or lead poisoning in Flint,” Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said in a Thursday statement.

The criminal probe is now focusing on whether Flint water was the source of a outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that claimed 12 lives in 2014 and 2015, and if government officials could be culpable of a “very serious” charge, special prosecutor Todd Flood said last week.

Snyder declined to comment on Schuette’s investigation and whether he’s been interviewed or believes he may be a target of the probe.

“They have to do their role,” Snyder told reporters. “We’re doing our role in terms of working hard to continue to see improving conditions in Flint between education, health and the water supply.”

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday asked the state Court of Appeals to intervene and lift the latest protective order issued by Judge Neithercut so it can assist in the public health investigation.

The department, in its court filing, called it a “pressing matter because there have been three new reported Legionella cases from Genesee County during the past two weeks,” bringing the annual total to six. One of the cases was reported by McLaren on Aug. 12.

Orders entered on June 27, Aug. 17 and Aug. 24 have prevented state health officials from confirming whether McLaren has taken appropriate steps to “assess, remediate and clear the patient’s location,” according to the department, which noted Michigan’s Public Health Code authorizes it to inspect or investigate suspected outbreaks.

The orders “significantly infringe” on the statutory roles and responsibilities of the state agency charged with protecting the general health and welfare of the public,” the department said in court.

“All represent serious disruptions to ongoing health and welfare monitoring and reporting activities conducted by executive agencies charged with fulfilling those functions.”

But Valacak said he is confident the county, in cooperation with the CDC, can handle the Legionella investigation without state assistance.

“These are national experts who have worked on investigations of Legionnaires’ disease, so they’re clearly top notch people who have a great deal of experience,” he said of the CDC.

Local health departments typically lead such investigations but call in the state if there are unusual circumstances, such as a case that involves multiple jurisdictions.

“Case number four had two health care facilities where there was a potential for exposure,” Valacak said. “We have inspected both facilities and taken samples from both facilities. They’ve been totally cooperative.”

The state health department, in its court filing, alleged that the county deleted Legionella-related documents from a statewide database, cutting off its access to that information.

Valacak said one of his staff members initially withdrew documents from the database before an attorney confirmed it was allowed under the court order. He said the county is now posting its findings in that database, which is accessible to the state.

“As we get information, they get it,” he said.

joosting@detroitnews.com