Genesee County has its first confirmed case of Legionnaires' disease this year, but health officials say there’s no indication it’s connected with Flint water.
The patient isn’t being named, nor are officials disclosing where he’s being hospitalized, but Genesee County epidemiologist Christine Rygiel says it looks like he didn’t have any contact with Flint water when he got sick.
“We were able to contact individuals that are close to him, as well as the hospital system, and get the puzzle pieces for the background,” Rygiel says, adding that they’ve spoken directly with the patient, too.
Legionnaire's is a kind of pneumonia, and it’s from a bacteria that likes to grow in warm, stagnant water. That’s why most cases pop up in the summer.
But it can also spread in buildings or large water systems that aren’t properly maintained.
During a normal year, Genesee County would see about a dozen cases of Legionnaires'. But from 2014-2015, during the peak of the Flint water crisis, the county saw 91 cases and 12 deaths from the disease.
Still, the lack of contact with Flint water, plus the fact that this case is coming at a typical time for normal Legionnaire’s cases, is reassuring for health officials that this isn’t a new outbreak.
“So knowing that this case actually came way later than the other cases that are occurring in Michigan, it just solidifies that we have this under control compared to last year, and the hospital systems are doing a great job,” Rygiel says. “The first case was bound to come, and it’s just a matter of when.”
“When we look at the pattern from the last two years with the outbreaks that occurred, the majority of those cases were occurring during the off season, which is October through May. So not seeing the first case until July, is good given the pattern we’ve had the last two years.”
Rygiel says county hospitals are doing enhanced screenings and surveillance in order to catch any cases of Legionnaires'.
And the state’s chief medical executive, Dr. Eden Wells, says we’ll probably see a few more cases this summer – but even if they are in Flint, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a problem with the water, or another outbreak.
“We expect there’s about 6 to 10 cases in Genesee County in each year. Of course, some of these cases will also be in Flint, and we need to expect that too…that again, may not be related to any type of outbreak, or anything to do with the water that we’re aware of. Of course, we’re looking very hard based on our last two years of experience, and we’re very prepared to try and prevent any outbreaks. But we do expect to see some sporadic cases, like we’re seeing here.”
Dr. Wells says those extra precautions have been in place for the last year and a half, warning health providers to be on the watch – and to do extra screenings – for possible Legionnaires' cases.