State warns McLaren Hospital to fix Legionella issues
Two state agencies Wednesday ordered McLaren Flint Hospital to immediately correct conditions to reduce the future risk of exposure to Legionella, the water-borne pathogen that causes Legionnaires' disease.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs issued the orders under the Michigan Public Health code to prevent the spread of disease.
The hospital called the state order "unfounded." It "represents the state’s continuous efforts to shift blame for their bad decisions made five years ago onto our hospital," said McLaren spokeswoman Rosemary Plorin, who added that McLaren is "exploring possible legal action" against the state.
The orders come as former Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and former Chief Medical Executive Dr. Eden Wells await trial in Genesee County on involuntary manslaughter and other charges related to a 2014-15 Legionnaires' disease outbreak in the Flint area that killed at least 12 individuals and sickened 79 others.
Under Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder, the state repeatedly attempted to lay responsibility for the 2014-15 outbreak on McLaren Flint Hospital. Snyder took responsibility for the Flint lead-contamination water crisis but blamed state water quality bureaucrats for the mistakes leading to the lead-contaminated water.
The hospital has insisted that Legionnaires' cases occurring at the facility were caused by Legionella bacteria in the city's water system.
But the state's latest action comes under the Democratic administration of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“The department has attempted to work with McLaren Flint to assure that all appropriate steps are being taken in a timely manner to protect the health, safety and welfare of patients, staff and visitors within the health facility,” said Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon, a Whitmer appointee, in a statement. “Prompt compliance with this order will minimize health risks for McLaren’s patients.”
The state's orders require McLaren Flint Hospital to immediately comply with water restrictions, patient notification, data requests, public health investigations and official recommendations from the department.
“Steps taken by the hospital have been insufficient to resolve Legionella issues that impair its ability to deliver an acceptable level of care for the health and safety of the public,” LARA Director Orlene Hawks said in a press release. “Our order requires the hospital to take additional measures to protect Michiganders and ensure compliance with the Public Health Code.”
The press release noted the hospital was the subject of state Legionella disease outbreak investigations in 2014, 2015 and 2016. According to state health officials, three McLaren Flint patients in 2018 "experienced conditions" that they believe were caused by Legionella associated with a hospital stay, as well as two cases this year.
"However, McLaren Flint has disputed the determinations and refused to fully implement recommendations given by both the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and MDHHS on how to investigate suspected cases in the future, and on the steps to be taken regarding the water system to better assure public health," the state health department said.
McLaren said it has continually tested its water system for three years and has "never been issued a citation on our water system."
"Our hospital treats sick people, including people that come to our facility with Legionnaires’ Disease contracted from community sources," Plorin said. "Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, including a 100% increase in Legionnaire’s disease cases in Genesee County last year, the state continually attributes those cases to our facility."
In January 2017, state health officials ordered McLaren and the Genesee County Health Department to take "immediate action" to reduce the risk of Legionnaires' disease at McLaren, prompting backlash from the hospital and county health officials.
McLaren Flint responded with a scathing, 137-page report accusing state officials of "baseless attacks" against the hospital, saying the state was pointing a finger at McLaren to deflect attention from the Flint city water system as a possible source of a Legionnaires' outbreak.
Scientific studies have determined that the Legionnaires' cases were caused by changes made to the water system, though their conclusions have been the subject of scientific debate.
A February 2018 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the risk of acquiring Legionnaires' disease increased more than six-fold across the Flint water distribution system after the city switched from the Detroit area water system's Lake Huron source to the Flint River in April 2014.
The study was published by the Flint Area Community Health and Environmental Partnership, which was funded in large part by the state health department. The research team includes scientists from Wayne State University, the University of Michigan, Colorado State University and other institutions. Researchers concluded the increase in Legionnaires' cases "was consistent with a system-wide proliferation of Legionella bacteria."
The report estimated that 80 percent of Legionnaires' cases during the outbreak can be attributed to the change in water supply.
State health officials disputed the results, calling the study inaccurate and incomplete, and discontinued funding the research team. Health officials said the department hired an outside firm, KWR Watercycle Research Institute, to do an "external, independent third party" review that found numerous flaws in the analysis.