According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, an official review of an 2014-2015 outbreak of deadly Legionnaires' disease can be traced to McLaren Hospital in Flint, Michigan, as the only common source of contagion. The outbreak killed 12 people and sickened at least 87 in Flint, during a crisis that evolved when local officials switched the city switched from Detroit’s municipal water system to the local Flint River as a source.
The announcement by DHHS is the latest development in an ongoing legal dispute with McLaren Hospital over the origin of deadly outbreak. In addition, it came while DHHS Director Nick Lyon fighting against a criminal charge of involuntary manslaughter over one of the Legionnaires' deaths.
Of 54 persons who were sickened, 51 had spent time at McLaren-Flint hospital, which is part of a larger health system. Of the sickened, 46 had no other exposure to hospitals other than McLaren-Flint, according to DHHS. The health department also determined that after McLaren-Flint superheated its water system and installed secondary treatment systems, no further cases of Legionnaires' on the Flint water system occurred. For its part, McLaren released a statement that claimed that the DHHS report revealed no new information and that it merely shows a pattern of avoiding blame.
McLaren-Flint denounced the “flawed conclusions” it sees in the DHHS report. DHHS accused McLaren-Flint in 2016, which was facing several lawsuits, of seeking a scapegoat to blame for the outbreak. DHHS made the accusation in a brief with Michigan’s Court of Appeals in response to the McLaren-Flint's contention that DHHS should not be allowed to review hospital records due to "conflicts of interest" because of the role DHHS played in Flint’s water crisis.
In April 2014, Flint officials switched its water source from water supplied from the Detroit municipal system to the Flint River. Residents soon noted that tap water was odorous and discolored. In 2015, scientists found that water supplied by Flint was laden with lead and other heavy metals. In addition, a few months after the water source was changed, large numbers of persons were reported to have been hospitalized, due to Legionnaires’. immediately, residents noticed tap water was discolored and acrid-smelling. By 2015, scientists uncovered that the water was contaminated with lead and other heavy metals.
A February 2018 report by NPR claimed that scientists confirmed that the Legionnaires' disease outbreak was “was caused by low chlorine levels in the municipal water system…” NPR quoted a co-author of a study about the outbreak, Michele Swanson of the University of Michigan, who explained that Legionnaires’ is caused by the Legionella pneumophila bacterium “that grows in water” and enters the lungs in droplets of the sort that are dispersed by outdoor fountains and sprinklers, or inhaled if a person chokes while drinking. Persons with compromised immune systems, Swanson said, are susceptible to lethal pneumonia caused by the microbe.
The outbreak of Legionnaires' occurred during the wider Flint water crisis, but it was not clear whether the two phenomena were related. Research suggested that chlorine levels in the Flint water system were a key to the outbreak. After studying data on water and epidemiology over a six-year period before, during and after the crisis, Swanson and her colleagues came to their conclusion about the source of contagion. When Flint’s water source was changed, the level of chlorine used dropped while Legionnaires’ cases increased. Swanson told NPR: "It was the change in water source that caused this Legionnaires' outbreak." The new research was published in two studies in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the journal mBio.
At the time of the water crisis and Legionnaires’ outbreak, Flint was subject to a manager imposed by the State of Michigan because of long-running fiscal problems and mismanagement. When excessive levels of toxic lead were found in the water supplied to Flint’s residents, a political crisis ensued. Not only local and state bureaucrats called to account, but Republican Gov. Rick Snyder was also blamed. Despite the fact that a Democrat represents Flint in the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrats hold all of the city council positions, and a Democrat was Flint’s mayor at the time, it was Republicans who were largely blamed. The current mayor of Flint, Dr. Karen Weaver, is also a Democrat.
When Snyder was summoned in March 2016 by the House of Representatives to testify about his administration’s contributions to the water crisis and the outbreak, Snyder said, "In terms of Legionnaires', I didn't learn of that until 2016. ... That was clearly a case where the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services should have done more to escalate the issue, to get it visible to the public and to me." However, in October 2017, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) called into question Snyder’s veracity. Cummings, who sits on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called for an investigation of the timeline Snyder provided. “One thing that all members of this committee — Democrats and Republicans — agree on is that witnesses testifying before us must tell the truth," said Cummings.