Expert in Flint case: Man didn’t die from Legionnaires’

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Flint — An infectious disease expert said Friday two Flint-area men did not die from Legionnaires’ disease, challenging a special prosecutor’s charge that the state’s health chief contributed to their deaths and excoriating the expertise of a chief prosecution witness.

Dr. Jeffrey Band, an infectious disease doctor at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak and a longtime epidemiologist, also testified that warning the public in advance of the Legionnaires’ outbreak — another key tenet of the prosecution’s case — wasn’t exactly needed. He later told the judge overseeing the case, “it can lead to widespread panic.”

Beaumont Hospital infectious disease Dr. Jeffrey Band testifies Friday, March 23, 2018, in the involuntary manslaughter preliminary exam of Michigan Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon.

Band was testifying for the defense legal team of Michigan Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, who faces involuntary manslaughter and other charges in the deaths of two Flint area people during a 2014-2015 Legionnaires’ outbreak that killed 12 people and sickened another 79.

Lyon defense’s team took aim at the prosecution’s argument that failing to alert the public about the Legionnaires’ outbreak was negligent and criminal.

Band said 85-year-old Robert Skidmore contracted Legionnaires’ disease in 2015, but it was “treated promptly and appropriately.” The Genesee Township resident “responded very, very rapidly to therapy almost back to baseline,” he said.

Skidmore later died, the doctor said, of “progressive” heart failure.”

Special Prosecutor Todd Flood has rested his case before 67th District Court Judge David Goggins, who will decide whether the charges will proceed to trial. Legal experts have said that unless the defense can poke a big hole in Flood’s case, Lyon is likely to go on trial because there is a lower threshold of evidence needed to advance the case.

Band said didn’t know exactly if the Flint River was the source of the outbreak. Prosecutors have used a litany of witnesses who linked the Legionella outbreak to the state-controlled city of Flint’s switch to the Flint River from a Detroit-area water source in 2014 to save money.

Band described the Flint-area Legionnaires’ outbreak as “smoldering” because it was “low grade” based on the total number of cases and was “very different” from outbreaks in other locations. He defined smoldering as cases that went “on and on and one for several months.”

Flood heavily peppered Band with questions about the doctor’s knowledge of the evidence he reviewed. The special prosecutor elicited courtroom laughter when he quipped to Band that the only thing he and Dr. Joel Kahn, a prosecution medical expert witness, agreed on was that the University of Michigan beat Texas A&M Thursday in the men’s college basketball tournament.

Even Goggins had questions for Band, repeatedly asking him to clarify why he didn’t think the public needed a definitive warning about the outbreak. In addition to public panic, the doctor said, Legionella cannot be treated with a vaccine like other diseases that would require a public notice.

The hearing started off with Lyon attorney Chip Chamberlain having Band walk through documents he reviewed on the two men who prosecutors say died of Legionnaires’ even though they had other serious health issues.

The son of Skidmore said his elderly father “was active” before falling sick in 2015 and dying. The elder Skidmore couldn’t live independently and wouldn’t eat after being diagnosed with Legionnaires’, the son said.

In February testimony, Detroit area cardiologist Kahn said Legionnaires’ disease helped accelerate Skidmore’s demise in December 2015 and “triggered” his death.

Kahn, a clinical professor of medicine at Wayne State University in Detroit, also said John Snyder, 83, of Flint died of a “Legionella” pathogen and pneumonia.

Band questioned the credentials of Kahn, saying he is “not an infectious disease specialist” and seeing 10 to 12 Legionnaires’ disease cases over a long medical career does not make him an expert.

The Beaumont expert said although Snyder tested positive for Legionella, patients such as Snyder with rheumatoid arthritis can sometime produce “false positive” test results for Legionnaires’ disease.

Twitter: @leonardnfleming