State fights Flint prosecutor's claims on surge in pneumonia deaths

Special Prosecutor Todd Flood claims 400% surge in Flint pneumonia deaths, but state says it's closer to 74% for pneumonia and flu deaths.

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
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The state's health department on Tuesday struck back at the Flint special prosecutor's claim in court that Flint pneumonia deaths surged 400 percent after the city changed its water source in 2014.

Special Prosecutor Todd Flood made a hedged claim in court on Monday, May 21, 2018 that Flint pneumonia deaths increased 400 percent from June 2014 to December 2015. The claim, made to a defense witness for state health director Nick Lyon, was made before Genesee County 67th District Court Judge David Goggins, who will decide if Lyon is bound over for trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office.

Special Prosecutor Todd Flood introduced hundreds of death certificates on pneumonia deaths into evidence Monday on what may be the last day of testimony in the preliminary criminal hearing for Michigan Health and Human Service Director Nick Lyon.

Lyon has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office for allegedly trying to cover up the 2014-2015 Flint area Legionnaires’ disease outbreak that killed 12 and sickened 79 others. Legionnaires' disease is a type of pneumonia.

Flood made the claim about the rise in pneumonia deaths in 67th District Court as he questioned a health expert for the defense team. Flood, who was appointed by Attorney General Bill Schuette, used pneumonia death figures from June 2014 to December 2015 and then presented as evidence hundreds of death certificates for 2013 and 2014 in Genesee County.

“If I told you the amount of deaths went up 400 percent in the city of Flint to pneumonia, would that be something you’d want to tell this court is a smoking gun?” Flood asked.

Michael Reilly, an adjunct assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University in New York, responded, “That would be something I’d be concerned about.”

The state department run by Lyon responded Tuesday by saying it crunched its own numbers and found "no evidence to support the claim that there has been a 400 percent increase." Flint and the surrounding region did experience a surge in pneumonia cases, said Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Angela Minicuci, but so did other counties in the state.

Compared with 2012 and 2013 numbers, the state analysis found pneumonia and influenza deaths increased 74 percent in Flint during 2014 and 2015, 51 percent in Genesee County, 50 percent in Flint Township and 46 percent in areas outside of Flint and its nearby townships.  

Michigan reports pneumonia and influenza cases and deaths together under federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting guidelines, according to the state.

"While there was an increase in pneumonia deaths in Genesee County in 2014 and 2015, it is important to note that several other counties presented with a similar increase in 2014 followed" with a decrease in pneumonia death in 2015, Minicuci said. 

"Additionally, compared to previous years, there was an increase in influenza reports in Genesee County during this time period with no associated increase in influenza deaths.

"This indicates that some pneumonia deaths may not have been accurately reported as influenza-related. Only pediatric influenza-related deaths are required to be reported in Michigan."

The city's water crisis occurred from April 2014 to October 2015 when Flint's water source was switched to the Flint River, whose corrosive water leached lead from the city's aging service lines. The move was made under the supervision of state-appointed emergency managers.

Gov. Rick Snyder didn't declare a state of emergency about the crisis until early January 2016, nearly three months after returning Flint to the Detroit area water system. The governor warned the public about the Flint area Legionnaires' outbreak a little more than a week later in mid-January 2016.

Some researchers argue the water conditions contributed to the growth of deadly Legionella bacteria, causing a two-year outbreak of Legionnaires' disease cases in Genesee County. 

In its Tuesday statement, Michigan's health department noted that it is required to report serious kinds of pneumonia, including legionellosis, tuberculosis or pneumonia caused by antibiotic resistance. But general pneumonia cases are not reported and tracked, according to the department.


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