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Detroit News investigation reveals state’s laissez-faire response to Flint Legionnaires’ outbreak

Dr. Janet Stout photo
Courtesy photo
Special Pathogens Lab
Dr. Janet Stout

The state of Michigan is under fire over information contained in newly released emails that show a less than urgent response to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease in Flint. 

We talk about it with Chad Livengood of the Detroit News and Dr. Janet Stout, a researcher from the University of Pittsburgh.

The Flint Water Crisis has mushroomed beyond a dire public health crisis to a political lightning rod rife with missteps, accusations and hints of cover-up.

Last Friday, The Detroit News reported on the state’s delayed response to  cases of Legionnaires’ Disease that surfaced in Flint in early 2014. Reporters combed through some 24,000 emails voluntarily released by the Snyder administration. Some of those notes indicate the governor himself did not learn of the outbreak until months later.

Current State talks with Chad Livengood, the capitol reporter for The Detroit News, and an expert on Legionnaires’ Disease, Dr. Janet Stout, a research associate professor and president of the Special Pathogens Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh.



On a lack of urgency in the State of Michigan’s response

“In the case of legionnaires’ disease, because it’s transmitted to people from water, you really need to be aggressive in identifying the water source of the infection. In New York, when they saw the uptick in cases they immediately started an environmental investigation. They notified health officials, the physicians, and the public they were doing this investigation. This notification allowed people to take precautionary steps. That important environmental investigation to identify the source apparently was never done in Michigan. It was a lost opportunity to end the outbreak early.” -- Dr. Janet Stout


Was the Legionella bacteria the result of using Flint River water?

“I have no doubt about that. The science has already been done and published that shows the link between water and cases of Legionnaires’ disease. There are also reports that show poorer water quality in community systems are also linked to Legionnaires’ disease. Then the work revealed in e-mails by the Michigan Department of Health showed that when they looked back five years on six counties, the only county that had a significant rise in Legionnaires’ disease was Genesse County. That led them to the hypothesis that it was the water after they made the switch from the lake water to the river water.” -- Stout


What’s your takeaway from how states and agencies respond to these types of situations?

“I think what’s coming out in these e-mails is a very unfortunate chain of events. People on the ground at the Genesse County Health Department were trying very hard to reach out to experts, and the Center for Disease Control. Essentially, their efforts were thwarted by a bureaucratic chain of command - which would have been fine if the State went forward with assisting in the investigation. It’s difficult to comprehend why that assistance, offered so freely, was not requested. That’s the big question here. In past outbreaks there’s been a more aggressive response which has ended the outbreak much sooner.” -- Stout


On how public health took a backseat to other conerns 

“Clearly there were other motivations besides public health at play here. It appears as though these bureaucratic issues - like ‘Who’s going to do what?’ and ‘This is my territory, not yours!’ - sort of minimized or played down the concerns about the water which they were responsible for. As opposed to giving an alert to the public that there are some steps they can take to protect themselves; like boiling their water to kill bacteria. Those are the things that I think are most disappointing about this outbreak.” -- Stout

Kevin Lavery served as a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered before retiring in 2023.
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