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Questions raised at court hearing for state health director facing involuntary manslaughter

Oct 5, 2017

Who should issue a health alert and when they  should do it became the focus during a long day in a Genesee County courtroom today. 

State health department Director Nick Lyon is charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of Genesee County man in 2015.

More than a dozen people died during the Legionnaires' disease outbreak in Genesee County from 2014 to the end of 2015.

Health department officials, including Lyon, were aware of a spike in Legionnaires' cases in January 2015.  However, the first public warning about the deadly form of pneumonia was not issued until a year later.

Prosecutors blame Lyon with a delay in alerting the public to the Legionnaires' outbreak in Genesee County.    

But on the witness stand Wednesday, a former health department employee testified that Lyon relied on staff investigating the outbreak for information.   

Defense attorney Larry Willey asked one-time state epidemiologist Corinne Miller about Lyon’s role.

“Did Mr. Lyon say to pursue the investigation?” asked Willey.

“I don’t recall that he said to pursue it,” replied Miller, but adding quickly, “he certainly didn’t say don’t pursue it.”

Miller also testified that she assumed the information about the investigation would have “flowed up” the chain of command. 

Still, prosecutors question why it took so long for state health officials to alert the public.

“Could it had been done?” mused Miller on the witness stand. “Could an announcement been made about Legionnaires'? Yes.”

The other witness to take the stand on Wednesday was Michigan State Police Col. Kriste Kibbey-Etue.    

Special Counsel Todd Flood wanted to ask the head of the state police about declaring a state of emergency in Flint.  

However, Kibbey-Etue has difficulty remembering whether Nick Lyon had attended any meetings involving the situation in Flint. In fact, she had difficulty remembering when such meetings took place and who else might have attended them

Kibbey-Etue admitted she doesn’t know what Legionella is (it’s the bacteria that causes Legionnaires' disease). Though she did testify that she would have expected a department head like Lyon to have shared information about a serious health threat in part of the state.

Kibbey-Etue also confirmed an email she received from Rich Baird in late 2015.  

The email was in response to one she had forwarded to Baird concerning a possible state of emergency declaration in Flint, related to the city’s lead-tainted tap water.

In the email, Baird replied that he, Dan Wyant (MDEQ chief) and Nick Lyon (MDHHS) were “working on it," adding that the governor wanted to avoid a disaster declaration. Wyant resigned as head of the DEQ a month after the email was sent. He came under fire for his agency’s role in the Flint water crisis. 

A state of emergency was declared January 5, 2016, in response to the city’s lead-tainted drinking water. A week later, the governor announced the spike in Legionnaires' disease cases.  

The preliminary exam is scheduled to resume on Friday.