Daughter of Legionnaires’ victim believes McLaren Flint is ‘getting away with murder’
She blames the hospital for causing her mother’s death and not top state health officials or the Flint water crisis
FLINT, Mich. (WJRT) - A month after state investigators charged nine people with crimes stemming from the Flint water crisis, the family of a Legionnaires’ disease victim believes the wrong people are facing involuntary manslaughter charges.
Former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and former Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells both face nine counts of involuntary manslaughter -- each count for one of nine people who died of Legionnaires’ in 2015.
Lori Kelly’s mom is one of the nine victims. She believes the wrong people are charged with her mother’s sudden death.
“Unbelievable. They’re getting away with murder,” Kelly said.
At least one-third of the people represented in those nine involuntary manslaughter charges were treated at McLaren Flint Hospital. Their families are suing the hospital, believing they died because of the hospital’s negligence.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has confirmed the connection, saying 52 people contracted Legionnaires’ Disease during the Flint water crisis from 2014 to 2015 because the bacteria was in McLaren Flint Hospital’s water supply.
“There is no trust at McLaren, there never will be. They killed my mother,” Kelly said. “I have no use for them. I need, I would like to see manslaughter charges brought on whoever did the cover up.”
Every day is a battle for Kelly, who lost her mom -- her best friend -- to Legionnaires’ disease on July 22, 2015.
“She was wonderful. Everybody loved her and she was a smart-aleck when she wanted to be,” Kelly said. “A little feisty thing, she was only -- I think she said she could stretch to 5 foot. She was short.”
Short, but her daughter says Nelda Hunt was a fighter. She turned 80 years old exactly two weeks before she passed.
It’s the same day Hunt checked into McLaren Flint. Kelly said the two had plans to go to lunch to celebrate this milestone birthday, but moments before she planned to go pick her up at her home, she said her mom passed out.
“I got there as the ambulance was there and she went into McLaren and never came out,” Kelly said.
She said her mom was treated about a week prior at the hospital for COPD, which wasn’t unusual. Hunt received treatment for the chronic inflammatory lung disease every year at McLaren Flint, but Kelly was not aware that the hospital had the deadly legionella bacteria in the water supply at the time.
“I don’t feel the people that are charged for manslaughter need to be charged,” she said. “I feel it’s McLaren higher up people for not disclosing what was going on.”
McLaren Flint has maintained that the city’s water source switch is to blame for the Legionnaires’ disease cases at their hospital in 2014 and 2015. But in a letter ABC12 News uncovered, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals the hospital has been a source of the bacteria since 2008 -- six years before Flint’s water crisis.
The 85-page letter from the CDC to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services about “healthcare-associated Legionnaires’ disease” cases at McLaren Flint is dated December 2019, but it was never made public.
Alexandera Skinner’s family believes she may have been the Legionnaires’ patient who contracted the form of pneumonia from McLaren Flint in 2008. She went to the hospital for surgery on her carotid arteries that year and later was diagnosed with the potentially deadly illness.
“They said mom had Legionnaires’ and that they didn’t expect her to pull through it,” said Betty McKeever.
Skinner was hospitalized for over three weeks and she developed Legionnaires’ after about two weeks, McKeever said. There were no issues with the surgery, but the fear of losing her mom became reality during the recovery process.
McKeever said the 86-year-old Skinner developed congestive heart failure and pneumonia, which then became Legionnaires’ disease.
“They hooked up like the humidifier on the oxygen and it was water bubbling, so it held moist air. And I firmly believe that’s where she got it,” McKeever said.
Skinner’s illness is not the case reported in the CDC’s letter. McKeever said McLaren wasn’t forthcoming about the diagnosis and didn’t investigate -- even suggesting the source of her mother’s Legionnaires’ disease was at their home.
“They wanted to have my sister and I have her water tested, because they think mom had gotten it from home. And I said, from everything I had read, it didn’t take three weeks to come down with it,” McKeever said. “And I said, she’s been in your hospital for three weeks. I said she got it here in this hospital.”
The CDC’s letter doesn’t report another Legionnaires’ disease case associated with McLaren Flint until seven years later in 2015 -- right in the middle of Flint’s water crisis. Ultimately, the state says 52 of the 90 cases during that time were linked to McLaren Flint.
But the hospital maintains the water source switch is to blame for the presence of the legionella bacteria in their facility.
“Very likely, what happened was the switchover exacerbated conditions that were already there,” said Tim Keane, a consulting engineer on legionella.
For two decades, he has been tasked with identifying issues within water systems -- specifically to determine if that system is a source for legionella growth. He has not personally inspected McLaren Flint.
“McLaren already had issues with their water systems, when it was audited by CDC that identified temperature issues, circulation issues. So those were all in existence prior to the outbreak,” Keane said.
He believes there’s proof in the CDC’s 2019 letter, which details their investigation into the hospital’s “healthcare-associated Legionnaires’ disease” cases. It says the CDC’s research uncovered “compelling evidence” that the same strain of legionella bacteria was at McLaren Flint from 2008 through 2019.
McLaren Flint again declined to answer questions about the situation. Instead, hospital officials sent a lengthy statement focused on arguing “there is no evidence in the CDC report of the presence of legionella in our facility’s water in 2008.”
But the CDC reports water samples taken at McLaren Flint from 2016 to 2019 match the strain found in patients as early as 2008.
McLaren Flint’s statement also says no investigation was conducted with the 2008 patient cited in the CDC letter, so there’s no proof the patient contracted the disease at their hospital. McKeever said the hospital didn’t investigate how her mother got Legionnaires’ disease in 2008 either.
She believes the hospital should be held accountable for her mother’s illness.
“What they put my sister and I through and my mother, they, they put her through a lot,” McKeever said.
As a result of the 2019 investigation, the CDC asked McLaren Flint to make a number of changes to prevent anyone else from potentially contracting the deadly bacteria at their hospital. Both the state health department and state licensing agency issued public orders, too.
A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said McLaren Flint provides them with quarterly water quality data reports, which state regulators review. State health officials say McLaren Flint Hospital did not report any healthcare-associated Legionnaires’ cases in 2020.
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