Health chief: Legionnaires' didn't rise much to his level

AP News
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Posted: Apr 25, 2016 6:19 PM
Health chief: Legionnaires' didn't rise much to his level

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The head of Michigan's health agency said Monday there was an eight-month gap between when he was made aware of an investigation into a Legionnaires' disease outbreak in the Flint area in January 2015 and when the issue rose to his level again around the time the city's lead-tainted water crisis exploded in September.

Nick Lyon, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, then waited another four months — until January 2016 — to notify Gov. Rick Snyder about the spike that some outside experts have linked to Flint's 2014 switch to a local river for drinking water while under state financial management. At least 91 Legionnaires' cases, including 12 deaths, were detected over a 17-month period.

"This has been a lesson for all of us. It really has," Lyon told a legislative committee investigating the disaster.

He appeared with Keith Creagh, who was named interim director of the Department of Environmental Quality after the previous leader resigned because of the agency's failures such as instructing Flint that anti-corrosion chemicals were not required to be added to Flint River water, which let toxic lead leach from pipes into tap water.

Later pressed by reporters on whether he should have told the governor earlier about the Legionellosis cases, Lyon said he waited until DHHS employees were close to finishing their probe and an investigatory report.

"We need to work on that internally within the department on how those things are elevated," he said.

He told legislators that state experts likely wanted to "solve the problem" before they raised it with higher-level executives, but the Legionellosis investigation "wasn't one that was easily solved." Lyon said he has since restructured the agency so epidemiological information is more forthcoming.

Legionnaires' disease is a pneumonia caused by bacteria in the lungs. People get sick if they inhale mist or vapor from contaminated water systems, hot tubs or cooling systems — typically in large buildings such as hospitals and hotels.

Of the 91 confirmed cases, 50 were linked to a Flint hospital served by the municipal water system.

A task force appointed by Snyder, who has apologized for the crisis, concluded that communication and coordination between the DHHS and the Genesee County Health Department regarding Legionellosis cases were inadequate.

Lyon on Monday disputed the task force's finding that he participated in a January 2015 meeting with local health, hospital and DEQ officials about the outbreak. He said there was a phone call, which he was not on, but for which he had authorized DHHS staff on the call to be "more forceful" in pressing a Legionnaires' investigation.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Flint Democrat and member of the legislative panel, said there is "no question" that Lyon should have informed Snyder at least in September, but he blamed a "culture" created by the Republican governor.

"It's either that he doesn't want to hear about it or folks in the governor's office hear about it and ignore it," Ananich said.

Snyder publicly disclosed the Legionnaires' cases in January, saying he had just been informed. Some of his staff, though, had been told about the surge and a possible connection to the river much earlier.

Snyder has called for an investigation by Michigan's auditor general and the health agency's inspector general.

The hearing — the committee's fifth — was held two years to the date that Flint switched to treating water from the river in a cost-cutting move while awaiting completion of a new regional pipeline. After the lead contamination was exposed last fall, the city returned to the Detroit-area water system for now.

Lyon said DHHS employees could face discipline depending on the outcome of various reviews. Creagh said it is "premature" to say whether the firing of one DEQ regulator and the unpaid suspensions of two who face criminal charges is sufficient.

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Follow David Eggert on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DavidEggert00 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/david-eggert .