State orders legionella action by Genesee, hospital

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Lansing — State health officials on Wednesday ordered McLaren Flint hospital and the Genesee County Health Department to take “immediate action” to reduce the risk of Legionnaires’ Disease at McLaren, prompting backlash from the hospital and county health officials.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday its officials had “immediate concerns” about whether the hospital has implemented federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for eliminating legionella bacteria.

McLaren officials said the state is “fixating” on the hospital to deflect attention from the Flint city water system as a possible source of a Legionnaires’ outbreak that sickened 91 residents in 2014 and 2015, resulting in 12 deaths.

Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical officer, said the state’s action was prompted in part by news Monday from the CDC that a November 2016 case of Legionnaires’ disease in a McLaren patient was confirmed by genetic testing to have been acquired inside the hospital.

“We have to assure that there is ongoing testing and monitoring going on,” Wells said in a Detroit News interview.

In a Wednesday statement, McLaren said its officials “find the State’s fixation on our hospital to be an alarming refusal on their part to address the need for real solutions to our city’s drinking water problem – a problem that was identified by the state in 2014 and 2015, but remains unaddressed even today.”

The state health dpeartment’s order followed a review of cases after a state Court of Appeals on Dec. 20 reversed a court order that previously prevented the state health agency from investigating the Legionnaires’ cases. The lower court blocked the state health agency’s involvement because it said it would compromise Attorney General Bill Schuette’s probe of the Flint water crisis.

Genesee County Health Officer Mark Valacak said Wednesday he was blindsided by the state’s order. He noted it was county officials who initially asked the CDC to investigate the uptick in Legionnaires’ cases, which followed the city’s swith from Lake Huron to Flint River water in 2014.

“The local health department requested that CDC be involved back in 2014, and the state said they really didn’t want the CDC involved,” Valacak said. “Why were they not brought in at that time?”

According to the state, Genesee County had 17 confirmed legionella cases in 2016. Of those cases, two were associated with McLaren Flint, including the November case.

A team of scientists investigating the Flint crisis said in December it is nearly certain the use of the Flint River as a municipal water source caused the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease and resulted in lead contamination of the city’s drinking water supply.

During the 2014 and 2015 Legionnaires’ outbreak, a state analysis showed that a high number of those diagnosed with Legionnaires’ in Flint had been patients at McLaren Flint in the 14 days prior to showing symptoms.

KBouffard@detroitnews.com