Thompson: Ousters overdue in Legionnaires’ outbreak

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

The emails detailing the events regarding the identification of Legionnaires’ disease in Flint and the state officials’ — including Gov. Rick Snyder — hesitancy to do anything about the matter are the worst possible examples of government inaction.

And even more troubling are the number of individuals at the state level who either kept mum, downplayed the seriousness of the problem or simply refused to let the governor know.

These bad actions should have led to consequences and penalties that would deter future instances. Those responsible or who played a part in delaying action or downplaying the problem should be shown the door. It’s that simple, and that is good governance.

That these actors continue to draw from the state payroll despite failing their taxpayer responsibility to the citizens of Genesee County and Flint as revealed in emails only erodes more public confidence in Snyder’s ability to address the problems.

From the final report from the Snyder-appointed Flint water task force released last week, we learned that Nick Lyon, the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, knew about the Legionnaires’ outbreak long before informing the governor. Lyon, according to the report, attended a meeting with health officials in Genesee County in January 2015 to discuss the outbreak that had been detected in Flint as early as 2014.

This health care crisis had claimed at least 10 lives of the more than 80 cases reported, and yet the health director had not informed his boss, the state’s chief executive.

If that information had gotten to the governor, is it possible that some of the lives could have been saved? This appears to be the height of bureaucratic incompetence.

Lyon, who has still not offered any public explanation for his actions, still has a job with the state.

When will he resign?

Also ensnared in this saga is Harvey Hollins III, the director of the Michigan Office of Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives. Hollins, Snyder’s point man on urban affairs, knew about the outbreak after receiving an email from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in March 2015 telling him that more than 40 cases of Legionnaires’ had been detected. According to emails, Hollins also did not bring the information to the governor before it became a full blown public health crisis.

Hollins, a former vice president of government and community affairs at Wayne State University, said in interviews after emails detailing his role in the health saga were made public earlier this year that there was not enough information for him to take to the governor. While Hollins is not a doctor or an expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, how he determined what medical information was worthy of bringing to the governor’s attention remains unclear and worrisome. Yet he also remains on the state payroll.

Jim Collins, the director of the Communicable Disease Division of MDHHS who declared that the Legionnaires’ outbreak was over in June last year in the face of skepticism from Genesee County health officials, also has maintained his role with the state.

“The outbreak is over. The last reported case occurred in March 2015. The lack of clinical Legionella isolates precludes our ability to link cases to an environmental source,” Collins said in a report last year that was part of thousands of documents released earlier this year by the Snyder administration.

Jim Henry, an environmental health supervisor in Genesee County, was skeptical of Collins’ report and raised suspicions last year even though he and other officials were reprimanded in emails by Collins for taking the case to the CDC in Atlanta.

“The executive summary regarding the Legionella outbreak is appreciated, but I don’t know if there is consensus that it is over. There has been a lot of finger pointing and miscommunications, which continues even in the email below from Jim Collins, today. I think us reaching out to CDC and EPA was appropriate. We were not gaining much ground with the state agencies and now the warmer weather is upon us,” Henry fired back in a batch of emails the governor made public this year as public scrutiny of the scandal increased.

The Legionnaires’ case and the Flint water crisis are examples of bad governance. Because the buck stops with the governor he must clearly demonstrate to the public that he understands the enormity of the crisis by asking for the resignations of the individuals who have been seriously implicated in the Legionnaires case. Because their continued presence in state government only goes to show that no lessons have been learned. And Gov. Rick Snyder should be telling us otherwise.


Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on WDET-101.9 FM at 11 a.m. Thursdays. His column appears Thursdays.