Snyder: Legionnaires' cases spike in Flint area

Jim Lynch and Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Cases of deadly Legionnaires’ disease spiked dramatically in the Flint area after the city’s switch to river water in spring 2014, according to state officials who said it is unclear if there is a connection with contaminated water.

In the years before the city began drawing its water from the Flint River in April 2014, Genesee County typically saw between six and 13 annual cases of the bacterial respiratory disease. From June 2014 through March 2015, there were 45 cases of Legionnaires’, including seven deaths, according to the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

From May 2015 through November 2015, the county recorded another 42 cases — this time with three fatalities. Gov. Rick Snyder’s office on Wednesday provided a report from late May 2015 that stated: “The outbreak is over; the last reported case occurred in March 2015.”

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During a hastily arranged press conference in Detroit, Snyder and Dr. Eden Wells, Michigan’s chief medical executive, said there are no additional precautions needed at this time for Flint area residents.

“We are not recommending any change in any actions by people,” Snyder said. “We’ve already put out a set of recommendations about filtered water, bottled water — a number of other items. ... So we’re not making any recommendation for a change of behavior by the residents of Flint because of this.”

Legionnaires’ disease is a respiratory illness caused by a certain bacteria in warm fresh water that leads to pneumonia. It is usually contracted in the warmer months. The bacteria can be found in large plumbing systems, hot tubs, air-conditioning units in large buildings and fountains, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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The state decided in October to change Flint’s drinking water source from the corrosive Flint River back to the Detroit water system.

A breakdown of the 45 Flint area Legionnaires’ cases from June 2014 to March 2015 shows:

■A little less than half of the cases recorded in the period came from residences that had Flint’s water as the primary water source.

■More than half of the total cases had visited a local health care facility within two weeks of their diagnoses.

■Ten of the total cases had not gone to a health care facility or had no connection to Flint’s water system in their primary residence.

“Not all people necessarily get sick when exposed,” Wells said. “Those who are elderly or have underlying immune system problems are more susceptible to getting it.”

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech researcher whose water testing helped uncover the lead contamination problem, suggested there may be a link between the increase in Legionnaires’ cases and a critical misstep in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s handling of Flint’s water treatment. The state failed to require corrosion controls — chemicals added to coat the inside of underground pipes and prevent lead from leaching into the water.

Edwards and his research team won a National Science Foundation grant in September, funding a study on the effects of interruptions in corrosion control.

In a Wednesday posting on his website, Edwards wrote: “A key hypothesis of our (grant) is that the rapid corrosion of iron in water mains in Flint would dramatically increase growth of Legionella in buildings. ... Higher rates of iron corrosion will produce: higher iron in water and lower levels of free chlorine. Both of these factors ... have been shown to dramatically increase Legionella regrowth ...”

In recent public appearances, Snyder has faced pointed questioning about what he knew about Flint’s lead contamination problems and when. On Wednesday, the Republican governor underscored that he only recently learned of the statistics surrounding Legionnaires’ disease.

“I’m going to share information that has been shared with the health care community in the past but hasn’t really been put out to the public,” Snyder said. “One of the reasons to do that today is I want to make sure we put it in the proper context. The information was just recently presented to me, and I thought it was important to share.”

In August, Debbie Kidd, 58, died after experiencing respiratory problems brought on by Legionnaires’. She lived in Otisville, roughly 20 miles north of Flint. The diagnosis shocked family members.

“I’ve got all these questions — how and why, where did it come from?” Troy Kidd, her son, told The Detroit News in August. “You go from never hearing about this thing to ‘It’s over here, it’s over there.’ ”

Flint’s water has been a source of concern from the day it started coming from the Flint River. Immediate complaints about the water’s taste, smell and color eventually escalated to this summer’s findings of high lead levels and contamination in the bloodwork of city children.

Residents have expressed frustration with all levels of government over the public health threat. But Snyder has been targeted for particularly heavy criticism since the decision to switch to the river was made with Flint under the control of an emergency manager his cabinet members appointed.

Snyder said the state has been working with officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency since first sharing its findings in June 2015.

Members of Snyder’s administration met with Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, and other area lawmakers earlier Wednesday, briefing them on updates on the water crisis and soliciting their feedback.

“I urge the CDC to send infectious disease experts to Flint tomorrow,” Ananich said in a statement released Wednesday evening. “We need an investigation into the past outbreak so we know what happened, whether there is any ongoing threat and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The Legionnaires’ announcement follows Snyder’s activation late Tuesday evening and deployment Wednesday in Flint of the Michigan National Guard and request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency — quickly approved that night — to coordinate an “interagency recovery plan” with other federal agencies to provide resources and expertise that could be used in Flint’s water emergency. FEMA has appointed a federal disaster recovery coordinator for the state.

“One of the most positive steps that we’ve heard, at least for us right now, was that we’re going to continue to have this line of communication,” state Rep. Phil Phelps, D-Flushing, said as he exited the governor’s Capitol office.

“Everyone agreed that we’re going to continue to do this on a regular basis, to get regular updates on the situation and to allow us to relay information directly to our constituents and make requests.”

Ananich is working to prepare a supplemental funding request for his city, an approach Snyder is considering as well, but he said he does not yet have an amount in mind.

“When kids are damaged with lead, potentially, there are a number of developmental issues that can occur, and we’re working to try to find programs — whether it’s nutrition, health, education — that can help make sure folks who were damaged catch back up again,” he said.

Detroit News Staff Writer Candice Williams contributed.