Health chief barely covers Flint Legionnaires’ outbreak

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon makes little mention of the Legionnaires’ outbreak in the Flint area that killed 12 people in testimony submitted ahead of a Wednesday congressional committee hearing.

Lyon’s prepared testimony to the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee focuses on what his department is doing to prevent another outbreak of Legionella bacteria, but doesn’t explain why the agency never informed the public about the 2014 and 2015 outbreaks.

The state’s Office of Auditor General and the health department’s inspector general are conducting a joint investigation into the department’s handling of the Legionnaires’ outbreak and the testing of Flint residents’ blood for elevated lead levels.

“We will address whatever shortcomings are identified by these reviews within my department and will properly address issues and factors that affected our response,” Lyon said in written testimony released Tuesday.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by southwest Michigan U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, will hold its first public hearing on the Flint water crisis at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

The Tuesday release of Lyon’s scheduled Wednesday testimony on Capitol Hill comes one day after his department said the Flint-area Legionnaires’ death count is now 12 out of 91 cases between June 2014 and November 2015 — a time frame that corresponds with Flint’s use of river water.

Lyon attended a meeting in January 2015 on a “date unclear” between his staff and employees at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Genesee County Health Department about the spike in Legionnaires’ disease cases, according to the governor’s task force report that was released in late March.

Lyon has remained mum about when he learned about the outbreak since his department is the subject of the new investigation. The state health department has not made Lyon available for media interviews in recent weeks.

The governor’s office is still not entirely sure when top officials at the health department knew about the outbreak and what actions were taken, if any.

Genesee County usually has fewer than a dozen cases of the respiratory disease each year, according to state health data.

In his prepared testimony, Lyon said the department has partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop a tool kit that will help health care facilities “prevent the growth of Legionella in water systems.”

The Department of Health and Human Services also is offering a range of medical, mental health, nutrition and educational services to Flint residents exposed to high levels of lead in the city’s drinking water system, he said.

“We have already taken steps to restructure areas within our department to better align programs with surveillance and to ensure local health issues such as the ones we are discussing today are quickly elevated for immediate follow-up,” Lyon said.

Keith Creagh, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, also is scheduled to testify Wednesday before the congressional committee and has submitted an advance copy of his written testimony.

Creagh’s testimony focuses on “lessons learned” from the Flint water crisis, including his agency’s mistakes in misreading the federal regulations for preventing the leaching of lead in old water pipes.

“We continue to work with the city of Flint regarding its future water needs,” Creagh said in written testimony.

Flint is expected to change water systems next year when the city hooks up to the new Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline to Lake Huron.

“We will work closely to ensure that Flint has the technical expertise in place before switching to an alternative water source,” Creagh said in the written testimony.

The DEQ director said the Snyder administration is working to address concerns about aging drinking water infrastructure across the state, not just in Flint.

“We hope that the effective implementation of this approach and the lessons learned will prevent the reoccurrence of such emergencies in Michigan and other parts of the country,” Creagh said.