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Genesee County health director: Legionnaires' deaths in Flint "could have been avoided"

The Flint River
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

In one of the worst outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease in U.S. history, the city of Flint suffered nine deaths as a result. A Flint official reported the problem to the Centers for Disease Control, but the CDC was unable to move forward with an investigation. The reason? The state of Michigan declined the federal agency's assistance.

The official who reported the outbreak was Jim Henry, the Genesee County environmental health supervisor. He joined Stateside to explain what happened and how, he says, those nine deaths could have been prevented.

According to Henry, the county first noticed a spike in Legionnaires’ disease in August of 2014. There were 45 illnesses and five deaths in the first outbreak. After consulting with experts on the disease, Henry reached out to the CDC in March of 2015 to ask for a more thorough investigation.

"I wish we would have been more prepared. We did not see this coming."

The CDC then reached out to the state because it's not able to launch an investigation without an invitation from the state’s epidemiologist. When the state told the CDC it could handle the outbreak itself, and that it believed the outbreak to be over, Henry says he was dumbfounded.

“We thought it was a mistake,” said Henry. “We saw new cases and the only reasonable explanation for that is that it must have been a mistake and that was conveyed … in an email in response to the executive summary that determined the outbreak was over. We identified the new cases in our response, so it’s clear that the outbreak was not over.”

The state’s chief medical executive, Dr. Eden Wells, said recently that that investigation conducted by the state “was very consistent … with any outbreak investigation that’s been conducted.” But with new cases documented, how was the state able to make the determination that the outbreak was over?

"I think that those deaths could have been avoided. I think in the year 2015 we could have prevented those deaths had the [CDC] been able to help us. That didn't happen. The state made that decision."

“Part of the problem is that [Legionnaires’ disease cases were] sporadic,” said Henry. “There were cases throughout the community, throughout Genesee County. It wasn’t limited to the city of Flint.”

A fact sheet was posted on the health department’s website and the county's medical partners within the community were notified of the issue. But that was the extent of the notification the public received.

“I wish we would have been more prepared,” said Henry. “We did not see this coming. We recognized that there was problems within the distribution system because there were brown water events. There were boil water advisories. There were odors and then … the city added chlorine to the distribution system to control bacteria. But this is not our expertise. This is not what we do. The state has jurisdiction."

"I learned a lot about municipal water," added Henry. "But prior to 2014, this is all new territory for me."

In the end, the state reported that at least 87 Legionnaires' cases, including nine deaths, were confirmed throughout Genesee County during a 17-month period.

“I think that those deaths could have been avoided,” said Henry. “I think in the year 2015 we could have prevented those deaths had the [CDC] been able to help us. That didn’t happen. The state made that decision.”

Listen to the full segment below to hear more details about the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak and what needs to be done to prevent another outbreak this summer.

Josh Hakala, a lifelong Michigander (East Lansing & Edwardsburg), comes to Michigan Radio after nearly two decades of working in a variety of fields within broadcasting and digital media.
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