Prosecutor alleges Legionnaires deaths could be higher than state reported

Special Prosecutor Todd Flood believes some were misdiagnosed with pneumonia but in fact died from Legionnaires disease. (Photo Credit: Drew Moore/WSMH)

FLINT, Mich - Special Prosecutor Todd Flood is making a case that hundreds of pneumonia deaths which happened in Flint during the water crisis may be tied to a Legionnaires outbreak. Flood put into evidence 325 death certificates with pneumonia as the cause of death during a hearing against Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon on Monday.

Flood’s assertion is the symptoms are very similar between the two illnesses, but the Legionella bacteria can only be detected through specialized medical testing.

The State of Michigan reported that 12 people died, and dozens were sickened by the bacteria during the same time period. Flood says there's a chance more people could have died from the water born disease.

“It was a four-fold increase from the two years prior to that. There were 325 deaths attributed to pneumonia during the time residents were drinking from the river. Isn’t that something that someone should have considered a smoking gun,” Flood said during the hearing.

Lyon is facing multiple charges including involuntary manslaughter, and neglect of duty for allegedly not doing more to alert the public about the outbreak. Called in his defense was Public Health Expert Dr. Michael Reilly from New York Medical College.

Reilly testified that alerting the public could have had negative consequences because the state didn’t know where the bacteria was coming from, so they didn’t know how to tell the public how to avoid it.

“Getting out information just for the sake of getting out information is problematic. It goes against a lot of the principles of risk communication. There were multiple different sources which may have been responsible. They ran the risk of losing their credibility without making sure they finished their investigation first," Reilly says.

Governor Rick Snyder, along with Lyon and Dr. Eden Wells, officially notified the public about the outbreak in January of 2016. Reilly testified he would have notified the public much earlier.

“If I was convinced that was occurring and I didn’t stop it as a public health official, I would consider that reckless. Something should have gone out earlier. I don’t think there’s any denying that what happened here was difficult,” Reilly says.

The prosecution and defense have both now rested their case. Both sides are now working with the judge to determine when to have their final arguments done. Lyon’s hearing could be the first to head to trial if the judge finds enough evidence.

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