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Court hearing focuses on what state health dept director knew about Legionnaires' outbreak

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
Michigan Health and Human Services Dept. Director Nick Lyon listens intently to testimony during his preliminary hearing

Attorneys spent hours Thursday battling over what the state’s chief health official knew about a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak, and when. 

Between 2014 and 2015, a dozen people died and dozens more were hospitalized for the respiratory illness.  

In January 2015, state health department officials started circulating an email raising concerns about a rising number of Legionnaires' cases in Genesee County. But it was another year before state officials publicly announced the outbreak.

The special counsel investigating the Flint water crisis has charged State Health and Human Services Department Director Nick Lyon with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the Legionnaires' outbreak. 

During a preliminary exam Thursday, Lyon’s former deputy, Tim Becker, spent hours on the stand being quizzed by Flint water special counsel Todd Flood.

In one exchange, Flood pressed Becker on concerns raised in January 2015 about the outbreak and a possible link to the city’s use of the Flint River for drinking water.

“You want to know if the two are associated. Your gut tells you it is, right?” Flood asked Becker.

“That would be the initial reaction,” Becker said.

“That would be a ‘Yes’, correct?” asked Flood.

“Yes,” was Becker’s reply.

Flint’s tap water source was switched in 2014 to the Flint River. The water was not properly treated, leading to numerous problems. Flint’s drinking water was switched back in late 2015. The spike in Legionnaires' disease cases started shortly after the switch to the Flint River. The number of new cases faded after the city’s water system was switched off the Flint River.

An infectious disease expert testified that the Flint River is the “most plausible” source of the Legionella bacteria.

Dr. Marcus Zervos is an infectious disease specialist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Along with other experts from Wayne State University, he was brought in to investigate the Legionnaires' disease outbreak.  

In court Thursday, Zervos told the judge that state health officials made it difficult for his team to investigate the source of a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak.

Zervos testified that during an exchange with state health director Nick Lyon, he warned Lyon that people would die if they didn’t get their study started.

“(Lyon’s) response was that ‘People are going to die of something,'” Zervos testified.

Lyon’s lawyers will get a chance to cross-examine Zervos on Friday. 

The defense attorneys challenged the prosecution’s case repeatedly during the hearing. The lawyers attacked the significance of emails and news media reports of Lyon talking about the outbreak played in court.      

More witnesses are expected to testify during Lyon’s preliminary exam. The hearing is expected to take several more days.

Prosecutors are trying to prove to the judge hearing the case that there is enough evidence to take the case to trial.

A dozen other Flint water crisis defendants will appear at similar preliminary exams over the next several months.

Special Counsel Todd Flood expects trials will take place during 2018.  

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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