Witness: Legionella alert was local responsibility

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
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Flint — A state epidemiologist testified Wednesday that the Genesee County Health Department should have been responsible for warning the public about the Legionella outbreak in the city, not the Michigan Department Health and Human Services.

The testimony from Jay Fiedler, a state health department supervisor, came at the preliminary exam hearing for the state’s Chief Medical Officer Eden Wells. She has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office by Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Fiedler said it was not the state’s job to tell the public that Legionnaires’ disease had made some residents in the region sick but rather the local health department, which “was not willing to do so.” He also said the public could have been warned sooner by Genesee County officials.

“I do believe that was the job” of the local health department, Fiedler said. “In my experience, I don’t know of instances where the state has overruled on a county issue.”

Wednesday was the fourth day in the Wells hearing before 67th District Court Judge William Crawford II. The judge will decide if Wells, who began her post in May 2015, will be bound over for trial.

Fiedler said he agreed with the state heath department that the Legionnaires’ outbreak in 2014-2015 could not be attributed “to a common source.” Others have testified that the switch to Flint River water was the reason why residents contracted Legionnaires’ disease and 12 ended up dying .

When asked by Special Prosecutor Todd Flood if the state was as transparent and urgent about Legionella as state officials claimed they were with lead contaminated water, Fielder said, “I think we were.”

He also testified on the stand that a public notice “could have gone out in April of 2015.” But Flood pressed him, asking whether January was the right time.

“I think in March (2015) when we had more information about their being a health care association, that’s when information could have been released,” Fiedler said.

At one point, Fiedler was questioned about a photo text message he sent in April 2016 to one of his subordinates joking about Legionella titled the “Legionella Chill Pill” bottle -- indicating that if you “take two pills” it would “relieve Legionella anxiety.”

Fiedler last testified on Nov. 7 at the behest of Flood but his continued testimony had been delayed until Wednesday in part because Fiedler’s text messages were requested by prosecutors and because of a death in the family of one of the prosecuting attorneys.

The special prosecutors requested Fiedler’s text messages to see if communications occurred between him and Wells. What they found were disparaging comments about Genesee County health officials, calling them names and describing their work during the water crisis as a “reign of incompetence.:”

When questioned by Flood, Fielder said he couldn’t remember making such unflattering comments.


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