Sunday, January 17, 2016

Legionnaires' Cases Around Flint Raised Flags in 2014
David Jesse, Detroit Free Press 6:49 p.m. EST
January 16, 2016

When officials with the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services noticed an uptick in Legionnaires' disease cases coming out of Genesee County in 2014, it raised alarms.

But those alarms never reached the public, at least not until last week, when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder held a news conference to say officials have seen a spike in the number of cases of a severe form of pneumonia, caused by the Legionella bacteria. A link between Flint's tainted tap water is now suspected as the cause but is not yet confirmed, according to Geralyn Lasher, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services.

The issue back in 2014? Delays for numerous reasons in investigating the Legionnaires' cases meant critical samples weren't gathered from patients and interviews of those affected weren't done until six or seven months after they had been sick, Lasher said.

"(Interviewers) were asking people to remember what they had done for the two weeks prior to being sick, but were asking months later," Lasher said.

Then, as the numbers of cases dropped, the professionals said they thought the danger had passed. Then, in recent months, another wave arrived, raising more concerns. There have been 87 cases of Legionnaires' disease in Genesee County from June 2014 to November 2015 — and 10 of those cases resulted in death.

Legionella, which grows best in warm water, usually enters the body from a person breathing it in, but it can't spread between people. The most vulnerable are those with weakened immune systems. Flint's water problems began in 2014 after the city switched its  supply source from Lake Huron to the Flint River water, which was treated at the city water treatment plant.

Citing e-mails,  MLive reported Saturday that concerns about the link between water and the disease were first raised on Oct. 17, 2014, when representatives of the Genesee County Health Department and Flint's  water treatment plant met. They discussed the county's "concerns regarding the increase in Legionella cases and possible association with the municipal water system," a county e-mail MLive obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request said.

The same e-mails also showed county officials waited for months for the city to respond to requests about the water plant. The county eventually filed a FOIA request in an effort to get some information, according to the MLive report.

Requests for comment to Flint city and Genesee County officials by the Free Press Saturday weren't returned.

Dave Murray, spokesman for Snyder, said the the overall breakdown in communications over the Legionnaires' cases is among the processes that are being looked at statewide.

“DHHS experts say it's not unusual to have a Legionella outbreak, and there was one the year before in Wayne County,” he said in an e-mail Saturday to the Free Press. “But there are many processes that are being reviewed as a result of the situation in Flint. We always strive to improve, especially when the health and safety of Michiganders is involved.”

Contact David Jesse: 313-222-8851 or Follow him on Twitter: @reporterdavidj

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