Genesee official admits errors in Legionnaires’ notice

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Flushing -- A Genesee County health expert admitted that he had said it wasn’t “reasonable” to notify the public about the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak while it engulfed the Flint region, but he also acknowledged that mistakes were made in the water crisis.

The testimony from Genesee County Health Department official James Henry came in the involuntary manslaughter hearing of state Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon on cross examination by defense attorney Larry Willey.

On the same day that the special prosecution team rested with Henry as their last witness for a prelimary hearing that began in September, Lyon’s attorneys introduced the email Henry sent to colleague Mark Valacak about an upcoming meeting with the county’s board of commissioners and how to defend the health department’s response.

“I suspect we may be asked the reoccuring (sp) theme, why we did not alert the public(?),” Henry wrote. “You and I agree that this is not a reasonable request.” After that he wrote about how cases were “sporadic,” and the “argument that we failed, also is not valid.”

Special Prosecutor Todd Flood said at the end of the hearing he is reiterating a misdemeanor charge of neglect of duty against Lyon related to his statement at a Jan. 13, 2016 press conference that he and Snyder administration were being “transparent" and trying to "share information as quickly as possible ... with the public” about the Legionnaires’ outbreak. Snyder first made the public notice about the outbreak at that press event in Detroit.

The neglect charge, Flood later clarified, is related to the original involuntary manslaughter charge on Lyon.

Meanwhile, Henry explained in court under questioning from Willey what went into his thinking. Legionella, he said, is not a person-to-person disease that could be easily transmitted. But his thought process about notifying the public was flawed, he said.

“I testified that we made mistakes and that the public should have been notified,” Henry said in testimony continued from Monday in Judge David Goggins’ 67th District courtroom. “I didn’t say the public shouldn’t be notified. I said the question wasn’t reasonable.”

Willey made the point during his questioning of Henry that all sorts of local and state agencies were overwhelmed by the water crisis and were casting blame after the crisis went public in October 2015. The 2014-15 Legionnaires’ outbreak ended up sickening 79 individuals in the Flint area and killing at least 12 people.

“Because you thought you did your job ... the best you could?” Willey asked Henry.

“Yes,” Henry responded.

On redirect, Flood, played a portion of Snyder’s 2016 news conference attended by Lyon and state Medical Executive Eden Wells, who is also facing criminal charges in the case.

In an impassioned line of questioning, Flood -- with unsuccessful objections from Willey -- asked if state officials and the state health department helped the county health department notify “people in the outer reaches or poorer folks here in town" about Legionella.

“No,” Henry said.

Henry told Flood that the Health and Human Services officials did not give the Genesee County Health Department sputum samples of Legionella.

Lyon’s attorneys are expected to call witnesses next month. Then the case goes to Goggins for a decision to either bind it over for trial or reject the charges.

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