Quick state action to involve federal agencies and inform the public might have shortened an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the Flint area and saved lives, a national expert on the respiratory disease told The Detroit News.
Michigan turned down help from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a Detroit News analysis of more than 24,000 pages of emails released by the Snyder administration and Genesee County.
State agency officials also tried to steer Genesee County health officials away from examining the municipal water system as a potential source of the Legionella bacteria that sickened 87 people between May 2014 and November 2015, killing nine.
Legionnaires’ disease is caused in warmer months by a bacteria in warm, fresh water that leads to a severe form of pneumonia and can be found in large plumbing systems, hot tubs and air-conditioning units.
The state’s handling of the crisis contrasts markedly with how New York state officials dealt with a Legionnaires’ outbreak last summer in the Bronx, said Dr. Janet Stout, a research associate professor with the University of Pittsburgh who assisted with both outbreaks. The Bronx spate included 133 cases, resulting in six deaths.
“New York City and New York state were very, very aggressive in terms of doing the testing and informing the public, and as a result they were able to contain the outbreak very quickly,” said Stout, president of Special Pathogens Laboratory, which conducted water testing in the Bronx.
The outbreak lasted about a month — from July 8 to Aug. 3 — and was traced to a cooling tower on top of a hotel, according to New York City.
“As a result, they were able to contain the outbreak very quickly,” Stout added. “If you don’t make that progression of doing the testing of the environment, the cases continue — which is what we saw in Flint.”
A study by state of Michigan epidemiologists of 45 Flint area cases that occurred from June 2014 through March 2015, resulting in five deaths, found that 16 cases were associated with McLaren Regional Medical Center in Flint.
Stout, who was hired by McLaren as a consultant, concluded Legionella bacteria likely entered the hospital through brown water from the municipal water system. But the cache of emails between state, county and federal health agencies documents the state’s reluctance to search the water system for clues or relinquish control of the scientific investigation.
by Karen Bouffard, The Detroit News, February 15, 2016