Doctor: State’s top doc threatened Flint researchers

Leonard N. Fleming

Flint — State Medical Executive Eden Wells threatened to withhold funding from a group investigating the 2014-15 Legionnaires’ outbreak in the Flint area and attempted to intimidate members and disparage their work, a health researcher testified Tuesday.

Dr. Marcus Zervos, a professor of medicine at Wayne State University, leveled the accusation here in 67th District Court as the preliminary exam for Wells resumed after a hiatus since December.

Wells has been charged by Attorney General Bill Schuette with involuntary manslaughter and lying to a special police agent and with obstruction of justice in regards to the Legionnaires’ outbreak that killed 12 people and sickened at least 79 others.

In referencing a string of emails with Wells in March 2017, Zervos said the state’s top doctor was trying to conceal information related to the connection between Flint’s lead contaminated water and the Legionnaires’ outbreak.

“It came up in the form of ... the email of a statement of ‘Do you know who’s funding you?,’ which I personally took as a threat,” he testified.

“Who made the statement, ‘Do you know who is funding you?’” asked Paul Stablein, a special prosecutor in the case.

“Dr. Wells,” responded Zervos, a Wayne State professor of medicine who specializes in infectious diseases for Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

The Detroit News reported on the email exchange eight months ago after Schuette filed initial charges against Wells.

But Zervos admitted that there were no eventual financing cuts. He said he had notified other officials he was going to quit because of the pressure from Wells and others but was convinced to stay because the research work on the Legionnaires’ outbreak in the Flint area was too important.

Zervos said in one of the emails on March 5 to Wells that “it is apparent that I cannot maintain any scientific or ethical integrity by continuing to work with you.” The “you” was referring to the Michigan health department “collectively,” not specifically to her, he said.

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 2014-15 Legionnaires’ outbreak, according to the emails The Detroit News obtained from the state in an open records request.

The team had many disagreements with the state, Zervos said, including his research team’s desire to “notify a research subject that they have Legionnaires’ in their water, and that was one area of disagreement. We felt that was important so that the patient, the research subject, could do something about it.”

Wells was opposed, he said, because “the public being informed about it may cause alarm.” Zervos said she was most concerned with “the messaging of getting something out without recommendations.”

The threat Wells made, Zervos said, was to withhold funding from 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 the Flint area.

On cross examination, Zervos said that although he disagreed with Wells on some issues, “I have a lot of respect for her,” he said. He also described her as being “fully engaged” in the project, assisted in the contract with his group and being “very helpful” overall.

“In my 35 years of academic life with all the articles that I’ve published, I’ve never had a project manager as engaged as Dr. Wells,” he said.

Zervos acknowledged that it is “possible to give out a recommendation and alarm the public. ... I didn’t agree with it, but I can understand her concern.” Wells was opposed to the study group notifying the research subjects of the results of the Legionnaires’ testing, he said.

“She had no recommendations for what we should tell them that I’m aware of,” Zervos said. “We made suggestions, but we didn’t get those recommendations from Dr. Wells.”

Although Wells attorney Steven Tramontin explained his client’s funding email as more related to delays over the research being done, Zervos said, “I didn’t take it like that.” He said he was aware of delays, but “the statement of you know who’s funding you, I took that as a threat to pull our funding.”

The occurrence of Legionnaires’ disease could have been avoided if the public were told to drink bottled water, he said, and that patients should be told about Legionnaires in a hospital setting during an outbreak.

Attempts to work with Genesee County Health Department officials regarding Legionnaires’ disease “was off limits for us,” Zervos said, but “there was a willingness to work with us, and that’s continued until now.”

Zervos also testified in September against Michigan Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, who is also accused of involuntary manslaughter. He said then the change in the city’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River demonstrated a direct connection to those affected by Legionella.

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