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State still doesn't get it about Flint

Mar 6, 2017

Last Friday, a number of university researchers and state and county public health professionals were supposed to have a meeting – actually, a conference call – with state officials.

The group is called the Flint Area Community Health Environment Partnership, and the subject was their preliminary analysis of the reasons behind a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Flint. More than 70 people got the disease during 2014 and 2015, when the city had been switched to water from the now-infamous Flint River.

Twelve of those died. State and federal bureaucrats knew about this at the time, and considered warning the public, but never did. When news of the Legionnaires’ outbreak finally became public last year, Governor Rick Snyder claimed he’d never been told about it.

Some said they were skeptical that the outbreak had anything to do with the disastrous decision to use water from the Flint River to save money, something that resulted in massive lead poisoning. But as time passed, evidence has surfaced linking Legionnaires’ to the river.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta announced they had found a genetic link between the water and the disease.

Naturally, there’s enormous public interest in further information. One person invited to Friday’s meeting was someone you’d think definitely should have been there. Dr. Pamela Pugh is chief public health advisor for the city of Flint.

She has a PhD in public health from the University of Michigan. Additionally, she was elected to Michigan’s state board of education by the voters of the entire state three years ago.

Wayne State University researchers invited her to attend, which Flint Mayor Karen Weaver thought highly appropriate. But when the meeting started, and state officials found out Dr. Pugh was there, they more or less freaked out. They demanded she leave, she refused, and the meeting then, Dr. Pugh told me, “ended abruptly.”

Later, Nick Lyon, the director of Governor Snyder’s health and human services department, claimed this was Wayne State’s fault, and claimed there have been “escalating difficulties with WSU’s data management, study protocols and research ethics.”

Well, I’ve taught full-time at Wayne for many years, and have found the administration to be almost obsessively concerned with scrupulously observing ethical guidelines. Dr. Pugh, who is a scientist and a researcher, was polite, but told me this was nonsense.

Individual cases were not going to be discussed at the meeting, just overall data. Once again, as has been the case far too often with the Snyder administration and Flint. “it can appear as if (they) are looking for a reason to keep information closed,” she said.

Unfortunately, she added, the state’s closed-door attitude doesn’t allow her, the city’s public health advisor, to do her job. “I can’t go and tell the residents that they didn’t let me in the meeting. That doesn’t bode well for me, and it definitely doesn’t look good for the state.”

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who also has a doctorate, was even more outraged that her public health advisor wasn’t welcome at the meeting.

Somehow, the Snyder administration still appears to believe it can keep information from the public when it comes to Flint. That attitude destroyed their credibility when it came to the lead poisoning scandal. What’s most baffling is that they still don’t seem to get it.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.