Ex-epidemiologist: Legionnaires’ outbreak known by Wells
Flint – State health leaders including state Medical Executive Eden Wells were familiar with the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in 2015 as it continued to bedevil Genesee County health officials, a former state health epidemiologist testified Wednesday.
This was part of the morning testimony of Corrine Miller, who worked with Wells in the Michigan Health and Human Services department where the retired epidemiologist said the Legionella outbreak was “common knowledge” among the top echelon of state health leaders in January 2015. Wells officially assumed her post on May 1, 2015.
“It was a large outbreak for Genesee County,” Miller said, admitting it was the largest in decades for that area. “I suspect it was because Legionella wasn’t a known disease until the 1970s.”
The former state epidemiologist said she spoke to Wells about the Legionnaires’ outbreak, especially when someone died of the disease in August 2015 but the discussion was about not confirming the specific patient’s health information to the public. That was the role of the local health officials.
Wells is charged by State Attorney General Bill Schuette with involuntary manslaughter, lying to a special police agent and obstruction of justice regarding the 2014-2015 Legionnaires’ outbreak that killed 12 people and sickened at least 79 others.
Under questioning by Special Prosecutor Todd Flood, Miller admitted that health officials had open dialogue about issues like the Legionnaires’ outbreak and that it was serious based on the number of cases that engulfed local health officials.
“Was this outbreak in Flint at the time of January 2015, was this serious?” asked Flood.
“Yes,” Miller replied, adding, “the number of cases.”
Wells would have wanted to know about the Legionnaires’ situation during her transition to take over the state executive job, Miller said.
During her testimony, Miller described Wells as a “friend” with whom she would talk regularly and even go out to lunch and was “very energetic” and someone who would engage her colleagues.
Miller also was asked about Dr. Mona Hana-Attisha’s announcement about lead poisoning results in children in Flint in September 2015 and how state officials responded to it. She questioned state Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon’s rebuking of Attisha’s study.
Flood read an email from Lyon that said, “I would like to make a demonstration of proof that the lead blood levels seen are not out of the ordinary.” Miller said that statement was “upside down, it was a backwards question.” She didn’t expect Lyon to “make up some information” that the water switch in 2014 wasn’t the problem “and that’s what it seemed like.”
Flood asked Miller if Wells questioned Lyon’s assertion with a statement such as “That’s not how we do our job here? We don't try to fit a conclusion into evidence.” Miller’s answer: “No.”
Miller, who retired in 2016 after leading the office for a decade, pleaded no contest in September to willful neglect of duty, a misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail. In exchange for prosecutors dismissing two felony charges, Miller agreed to cooperate with investigators probing the Flint water crisis.
On cross examination, Miller said she could not confirm a direct conversation with Wells about the Legionella outbreak specifically until the fall of 2015.
Wells attorney Steven Tramontin asked Miller about how she recommended Wells for the job of state medical executive. She said that she warned Wells that the state position would be arduous because “there was a lack of clarity in what the role was supposed to be.”
The medical executive position, Miller said, did not have a staff or oversee a department.
Miller already testified in a September preliminary hearing for Lyon’s case. He also faces involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office charges.