Spike in Legionnaires' disease reported in Flint area; 10 dead since 2014

Health officials couldn't say if spike is related to Flint water crisis

Gov. Rick Snyder addresses public health concerns in the city of Flint during a news conference in Detroit on Jan. 14, 2015.
Gov. Rick Snyder addresses public health concerns in the city of Flint during a news conference in Detroit on Jan. 14, 2015.

DETROIT – Joined by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder Wednesday afternoon, health officials said a spike in Legionnaires' disease cases was detected in Genesee County between June 2014 and November 2015. 

Officials said it is not clear if these cases are related to the water crisis which left high levels of lead in the city of Flint's drinking water system. They said 10 deaths are related to 87 cases of the disease over that time period in Genesee County. 

Snyder held a news conference in Detroit where he was joined by Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Eden Wells, and Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs Director Mike Zimmer.

Lyon said an increase of Legionnaires' cases was detected in the fall of 2014. 

"From June 2014 to March 2015, 45 Legionnaires' cases, all confirmed Legionnaires' disease, were reported in Genesee County. Seven of these cases resulted in patient deaths," said Lyon. 

Lyon said the illness reports peaked in August of 2014 with 10 cases. 

"Preliminary data for the remainder of 2015 indicates an additional increase in Genesee County. A full analysis of this data should be available within a week," he said. "From May 2015 through November 2015 there were 42 Legionnaires' cases, which includes one case of Pontiac Fever reported in Genesee County. Three of these cases resulted in death as well."

Dr. Wells said there is no evidence at this time that the peak in Legionnaires' cases in Genesee County is "ongoing" or a "community-based transmission."

"We don't have any change in recommendations to bathing. It is still safe to bathe ... in the city of Flint," said Wells.

According to the Michigan Department of Health, Legionella is a type of bacteria commonly found in the environment that grows best in warm water, such as hot tubs, cooling towers, hot water tanks, potable water systems, and decorative fountains. When people are exposed to the bacteria, it can cause Legionellosis, a respiratory disease that can infect the lungs and cause pneumonia. The bacteria can also cause a less serious infection called Pontiac fever. Legionella cannot spread from one person to another person.

"While Legionellosis cases are not uncommon, we are concerned about the increase in cases seen in Genesee County,” said Wells. "We are releasing this report and continuing surveillance and investigations to ensure that appropriate actions are being taken to protect the health of the residents of Flint.”

Regardless of the cause, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D–Flint) is asking the Centers for Disease Control to investigate this latest health crisis affecting Flint.

"I urge the CDC to send infectious disease experts to Flint, tomorrow," said Ananich in a statement Wednesday. "We need an investigation into the past outbreak so we know what happened, whether there is any ongoing threat, and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again."

Snyder: Flint water crisis 'part of my legacy'

The governor attended the auto show in Detroit this week where he answered tough questions about the state's response to the water crisis in Flint. 

"It's part of my legacy," he said. 

On Tuesday night, Snyder activated the National Guard to help distribute water bottles and filters in Flint. Seven National Guard members from the Saginaw post arrived on Wednesday. 

The governor declared a state of emergency for Genesee County on Jan. 5 due to the ongoing health and safety issues caused by high levels of lead in the city of Flint's drinking water.

The mayor of Flint, Karen Weaver, declared a state of emergency on Dec. 14, 2015.

Dennis Muchmore, former chief of staff, sent a concerned email to the state health agency this past July fearing the state of Michigan was blowing off Flint residents' water system concerns. He has since resigned.

This is the second time Snyder has activated the National Guard. The first time was in May 2012 for the massive Duck Lake Fire in the Upper Peninsula.