State Legionnaires' study: Flint water system not to blame, but hospital was

Published: May. 29, 2018 at 5:37 PM EDT
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(5/29/2018) - The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services says the Flint water distribution system was not to blame for spikes in Legionnaire's disease outbreaks in 2014 and 2015.

Instead, the cases reported during those years, which coincide with the Flint water crisis, were concentrated at McLaren Flint hospital and part of a statewide and nationwide increase in Legionnaire's cases.

However, McLaren strongly disagrees with the state's study and calls it an attempt to shift the blame from the state's culpability amid ongoing criminal action against Department of Health and Human Services leadership.

A total of 90 Legionnaire's disease cases were reported in Genesee County in 2014 and 2015. The Genesee County Health Department conducted investigations into each, trying to determine the patients' symptom onset, area of residence, recent health care received, recent travel and other variables.

The health department got thorough histories back from 83 of the 90 patients.

The outcome of those investigations was compared to results from similar Legionnaire's investigations based on cases reported from 2011 to 2013.

The state study found that Legionnaire's cases from Genesee County were spread out across the county and not concentrated in the city of Flint:

-- 68 percent of cases in 2014 and 2015 affected patients living outside Flint and hadn't consumed water from the Flint city water system.

-- 64 percent of cases from 2011 to 2013 affected patients living outside Flint and hadn't consumed Flint's city water.

The Department of Health and Human Services study pointed out that Legionnaires' cases have increased by 286 percent nationwide and 375 percent in Michigan from 2000 to 2016, which accounts for some of the increase in Genesee County.

However, state investigators say 54 of the 83 fully documented cases -- or 65 percent -- had stayed at a hospital during the incubation period for Legionnaires'. Of those, 51 of the Legionnaires' patients had stayed at McLaren Flint.

Also, of the 54 Legionnaires' patients who had been in a hospital, 46 of them had only been at McLaren Flint and no other hospital during their incubation period, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Additionally, only nine of the 32 patients who had not stayed in a hospital during the Legionnaires' incubation period drank water from the city of Flint's distribution system, the study says.

According to investigators, no Legionnaires' cases involving patients drinking water from the city of Flint's distribution system occurred after the week of Aug. 15, 2015, when McLaren Flint superheated its water system and installed secondary treatment systems.

In a statement issued Tuesday afternoon, McLaren Health Care blasted the state's report as an attempt to shift the blame for the Legionnaires' outbreak in Flint.

"We find the timing of the state’s release today to be an interesting coincidence as the first phase of the criminal proceedings against (Michigan Department of Health and Human Services) leadership winds down," the statement says.

"Initial review of the report reveals no new information regarding our community’s epidemic of Legionnaires’ disease in 2014 and 2015, but reflects the state’s normal pattern of attempting to shift liability away from those criminally charged," the statement continues.

Preliminary hearings for Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and Dr. Eden Wells, Michigan's chief medical executive, are nearing their conclusions.

The judges overseeing each case will decide at the end whether either should go to trial.

McLaren says the state's study was based on a "flawed methodology" that unfairly skewed the results by:

-- Failing to account for the significant number of Legionnaires’ cases that had no affiliation with McLaren Flint hospital.

-- Failing to account for potential exposure to legionella bacteria outside of the home or hospital setting. The statement calls that "a myopic focus that distorts the analysis and deflects attention away from the municipal water system."

-- Ignoring scientific research showing the switch to the Flint River in April 2014 was the "root cause and trigger" of Genesee County's uptick in Legionnaires' cases. McLaren says peer-reviewed articles published in scientific journals agree with that conclusion.

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