McLaren releases report over state’s legionella claims

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

McLaren Flint hospital on Friday released a scathing report accusing state officials of “baseless attacks” against the hospital and allegations of its role in the city’s Legionnaires’ disease outbreak.

In a blistering 137-page report, the hospital said it would not agree to hire a third party monitor to oversee the quality of its water system, as ordered Feb. 14 by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The hospital said it also refuses to conduct some state-ordered tests of its water system that are not required of other hospitals.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, in a February order, demanded McLaren “immediately correct conditions” to reduce legionella bacteria after it determined that two Legionnaires’ cases in 2016 were associated with hospital.

An earlier outbreak of the disease resulted in the deaths of 12 Genesee County residents and the sickening of 91 others during the summers of 2014 and 2015. The state said McLaren was associated with 40 of those cases and found that a hired consultant told the hospital in late 2014 that its internal water system was “likely” contributing to legionella issues.

Legionnaires’ disease spiked in Flint shortly after the city switched to Flint River water in April 2014 as a money saving measure. The city previously used Lake Huron water drawn from the city of Detroit’s water system.

In a letter accompanying the hospital’s response, CEO Chad M. Grant said, “Instead of focusing on the broader sources of legionella exposure in the community, MDHHS has focused on blaming McLaren Flint.”

Grant disagreed with the state’s interpretation of genetic evidence used to link the hospital to two Legionnaires’ cases in 2016. “There is no basis to say that the legionella found in that sample exists only at McLaren Flint, and nowhere else.”

Nick Lyon, the director of the state Health and Human Services Department, said the agency is reviewing the hospital’s response. “Our first priority remains to protect the health and safety of all Genesee County residents.

“McLaren Flint remains the only hospital in Michigan to have had two health care-associated cases at their facility in 2016. Our order and requests for information is necessary to ensure that there is not an ongoing risk, and that McLaren Flint has taken the appropriate steps to remediate any issues internal to their facility to protect the health and safety of their patients as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last October and November.

“Our order remains in place and we fully expect McLaren Flint to comply.”

The department did not respond to a question asking what recourse they have if McLaren refuses to follow its orders.

Grant said the agency “chose to blame and attack McLaren Flint,” ignoring the opinions of several scientists who have said the outbreaks are linked to changes in Flint’s city water.

In its response, the hospital cited emails from experts at the DHHS unearthed from a trove made public early last year. In a message on Oct. 13, 2014, to James Rudrik, the director of the communicable disease division, state epidemiologist Shannon Johnson said that data didn’t support the idea that McLaren was the source of the outbreak.

“The current hypothesis is that the source of the outbreak may be the Flint municipal water,” Johnson wrote.

Meanwhile, the state agency, in February, said McLaren failed to turn over test results or take corrective actions required by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in response to the epidemic.

Two weeks after issuing their order, state health officials sent a letter to McLaren demanding more answers and information. In that letter, officials expressed concerns that the hospital or a consultant may have destroyed internal water system testing samples related to an initial regional outbreak of deadly Legionnaires' disease.

The letter, which was released to The Detroit News, also questioned whether McLaren withheld or destroyed bacterial cultures, called isolates, collected during testing of the hospital water system — an allegation McLaren strongly denies.

McLaren’s report includes an item-by-item response to the state’s allegations. The hospital agreed to implement all CDC recommendations, and said it had already turned over all water test results, listing the dates of emails and meetings when data was delivered.

“All clinical specimens relating to legionella have been and will continue to be sent directly to MDHHS for review and testing,” McClaren reported.

Hospital officials said they would not agree to outside monitoring because they’ve already hired some of the nation’s top experts to oversee the quality of their water system.

“We would have no opportunity to evaluate the education, training, professional experience or independence of any state-appointed monitor,” the hospital said in its report.

“We also have concerns about the potential biases and conflicts of interest of a state-appointed monitor, a valid concern considering all of the circumstances.”