Doctor: State health chief tried to conceal Flint data
Lansing —Michigan Chief Medical Officer Eden Wells was trying to conceal information related to the connection between Flint’s lead contaminated water and a 2014-15 Legionnaires’ outbreak, a Wayne State University professor contends in an email exchange this year with Wells.
Wayne State professor of medicine Marcus Zervos accused Wells of trying to “suppress our findings of the serious deficiencies in the investigations and mitigation efforts” of the state and Flint area health departments related to the Legionnaires’ outbreak, according to early March emails The Detroit News obtained from the state in an open records request.
Zervos was referring to a Wayne State-led investigation in which he was participating that was studying whether Flint’s switch to Flint River water in April 2014 was responsible for a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak that killed 12 and sickened 79 others in the Flint area in 2014-15. The state of Michigan contracted with the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership in March 2016 for the $3.1 million study.
The legal team of Attorney General Bill Schuette has charged Wells with lying to a special police agent and with obstruction of justice, a felony punishable by up to two years in prison. A court document shows Schuette’s team hopes to prove its case with planned testimony from Zervos, who is also division head of infectious diseases at Detroit’s Henry Ford Health System.
Schuette’s team alleged that Wells obstructed justice by “threatening to withhold funding for the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership if the partnership did not cease its investigation into the source of the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Flint.”
The emails provide insight about the prosecution’s case against Wells, who became the state’s part-time chief medical officer on May 1, 2015. She became a full-time official on Feb. 1, 2016, about four months after lead contamination in Flint’s water was publicly acknowledged and less than a month after Gov. Rick Snyder declared Flint to be a state emergency.
Wells’ attorney Jerold Lax said Friday he can’t comment on Zervos’ allegations.
“She vigorously denies all charges against her,” Lax said. “I can’t and won’t really comment on any specific items of evidence at this point.”
Zervos did not return phone calls or an email on Friday. The Henry Ford Health doctor will testify that he emailed Wells about “her efforts to intimidate and obstruct the investigation,” according to a charging document from Schuette’s office.
On Wednesday, the attorney general also charged Wells’ boss, Michigan Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office, punishable by up to 20 years in prison combined. Lyon attorney Charles Chamberlain has vowed to fight the charges and does not foresee a plea deal.
Expert cuts ties with state
The March 3-5 email exchanges between Zervos and Wells led the Henry Ford Health infectious diseases expert to say he would end the health system’s subcontract with Wayne State.
“This is another example of your continuing attempts to intimidate me that I am not going to stand for,” Zervos wrote Wells in his final March 5 email. “It is apparent that I cannot maintain any scientific or ethical integrity by continuing to work with you.”
The emails make clear that there were tensions for months between the Wayne State researchers and Wells about the handling of the Legionnaires’ probe and whether to delve into the historical data on Legionella in the water system — a key stated aim of the research partnership.
In a March 3 email, Zervos wrote that Wells had accused him and others of “ethical violations,” not sharing information in a timely manner and threatening to cut off funding by reminding them of their financing source.
Zervos said he was speaking only for himself as he accused Wells of trying to “disparage our work” in an “attempt to conceal information that should have been made public, and to prevent us from stating our position about the safety of the water in Flint or the consequences of the change in source of Flint water that does not agree with your position.”
He said the state health department needed to act on the information it already had “without making excuses that more information is needed, suppressing information, and attempting to disparage or intimidate investigators.
“What is lacking is the moral and political will to do what should be done,” Zervos wrote.
Wells cites study concerns
Wells emailed back from her state account that she wasn’t trying to intimidate him. She also asked the doctor to review protocol stipulated in a contract he signed before his research with the state began.
In another email, Wells claims that she received an anonymous text message that said Zervos shared confidential state contractual information with a patient — something Zervos disputes in the exchange.
“Let me restate- the person that provided the copy of the text/electronic posting is not anonymous to me,” Wells wrote on March 5.
Zervos responded that the statement was “outrageous and unfounded,” saying he had never spoken to a patient or anyone else “about anything that is public knowledge or related to information separate” from the state contract.
Wells also said she wasn’t trying to intimidate partnership researchers by reminding them of the funding source. She said academics who receive government funding from organizations such as the National Institutes of Health usually are “more prompt in responding to requests for promised ... revised protocols” in the study and “exhibit more alacrity in responding to concerns by participating agencies.”
Wells separately emailed on March 4 three state officials including Lyon and Michigan Transformation Manager Rich Baird, a key Snyder adviser on the Flint crisis, to explain that the issues in Zervos’ March 3 email “arise primarily, I think, out of the failure of academia to realize, repeatedly, they are conducting research within a public health crisis.”
She then addressed Shawn McElmurry, who is copied on the March 5 email, saying “I stand ready to share all available and well-documented materials with Dr. Lanier and any other participating ... organizations.”
Another researcher witness
McElmurry, a Wayne State associate professor of civil and environmental engineering involved in the partnership study, will testify that Snyder urban issues adviser Harvey Hollins contacted him in January 2016, asking him to research any possible link between Flint water and the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak, Schuette’s charging document states.
The same document said McElmurry will also testify that Wells did not want the contracted research team that Zervos was a part of to sample Flint residents’ water filters and directed them to stop a historical analysis into the issue because it “proved problematic.”
In a March 5 email response, Zervos said he would quit the state-funded study and keep pursuing his research of the Flint Legionnaires’ outbreak separately.
Among those whom Wells copied in the email exchanges with Zervos were state epidemiologist Sarah Lyon-Callo, Lyon, Baird and McElmurry.
Schuette’s team also plans to have McElmurry testify at Wells’ trial that he wrote an August 2016 email to colleagues including Zervos saying that Wells did not want the partnership “to sample Flint residents’ filters,” according to the charging document. He is also expected to testify that he was “directed to stop his retrospective analysis” of the Legionnaires’ issue because it “proved problematic,” according to Schuette’s legal team.
Cynthia Whitney, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief of the respiratory diseases branch, had expressed an interest in such a “retrospective” Flint water data in a Jan. 26, 2016, email obtained by The News in a Freedom of Information Act request. Whitney wondered to CDC colleagues whether Michigan was looking into the historical data “to see if there was a time period during which chlorine was low, perhaps contributing to Legionella problem” — something she indicated might be helpful.
There was no answer from her colleague, but Whitney added in the email: “This might be opening a can of worms that only causes speculation and doesn’t help ... .”
Staff Writer Karen Bouffard contributed.