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Expert questions why state didn't alert public to Legionnaires' outbreak sooner

Sep 22, 2017

Special Counsel Todd Flood (left) points at a chart of Legionnaires' disease cases in 2014 during testimony by Dr. Marcus Zervos (seated)
Credit steve carmody / Michigan Radio

An infectious disease expert says the public should have been alerted to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak in Genesee County sooner. 

At least a dozen people died from the respiratory illness between 2014 and 2015. 

State health officials were discussing concerns about an outbreak in January 2015. But the government did not publicly acknowledge the outbreak until January 2016.

State Health Department Director Nick Lyon is facing an involuntary manslaughter charge in connection with the outbreak. For the past few days, a preliminary exam has been underway in a Flint courtroom to determine if there’s enough evidence to send the case to trial. 

Dr. Marcus Zervos is an infectious disease expert who’s been studying the Legionella outbreak in Genesee County. He testified today that there’s no “plausible” reason why health officials delayed with coming forward with an alert.

“Those recommendations can change later as there’s more information available,” says Zervos. “I don’t see any reason that providers should not and the public should not have been notified.”

But under cross-examination by Lyon attorney Chip Chamberlain, Zervos conceded one point.

“It could be difficult for the governor’s office if the switch to the river was actually related to the Legionnaires' outbreak,” Corinne Miller testified.
Credit steve carmody / Michigan Radio

“You can give a premature message that is wrong.  Absolutely,” Zervos testified.

Also taking the stand today was former state epidemiologist Corinne Miller.

Miller was among 15 current and former government workers charged criminally by a special prosecutor investigating the Flint water crisis.

Miller cut a deal with prosecutors. In exchange for pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge and cooperating with the investigation, Miller was sentenced to probation and community service.

On the witness stand, Miller recounted how information about the 2014 Legionnaires' outbreak circulated around the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, including Director Nick Lyon.

Miller testified she thought “it was a difficult situation.”

Miller says she believed a spike in Legionnaires' disease in the Flint area was related to a switch in the city's water supply.

“It could be difficult for the governor’s office if the switch to the river was actually related to the Legionnaires' outbreak,” Miller recalled thinking after a January 28, 2015 MDHHS meeting.

At the time, Flint residents had been complaining for months about their tap water. In April of 2014, a few weeks before Legionnaires' cases would spike in Genesee County, the city’s drinking water source had been switched to the Flint River. Improperly treated water damaged pipes, causing multiple problems.

The Legionnaires' cases only started to fade after the city’s drinking water source was switched away from the river.  

Nick Lyon’s preliminary exam is on hold until sometime next month.

A dozen other Flint water crisis criminal defendants are scheduled to have their preliminary exams between now and mid-January. 

Criminal trials are expected to take place next year.