Michigan's Health Director Faces Trial in Two Flint Deaths

Marcia Frellick

August 24, 2018

Michigan's director of the Department of Health and Human Services will stand trial on involuntary manslaughter charges stemming from the deaths of two men linked to Legionnaires' disease in the Flint area in 2015, a judge ordered this week.

According to the Associated Press (AP), the director, Nick Lyon, is accused of not issuing a timely alert about the outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in the wake of Flint's lead-tainted water scandal. AP reports that Lyon is the highest-ranking official to face criminal charges in the scandal.

Nick Lyon, Michigan's director of the Department of Health and Human Services. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

An expert who had been a local public health official in Ohio for more than 3 decades told Medscape Medical News the judge's decision is "sobering."

According to multiple media reports, cases of Legionnaires' disease have been linked by some experts with Flint's water scandal. In 2014 and 2015, water wasn't properly treated, and lead leached into the drinking water.

AP reported that at least 90 cases of Legionnaires' disease occurred in Genesee County, including 12 deaths. More than half of those affected had spent time at McLaren Hospital, which was on the Flint water system.

Lyon and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced the outbreak in January 2016, "although Lyon concedes that he knew that cases were being reported many months earlier," AP reports.

Judge Says Deaths Could Likely Have Been Prevented

District Court Judge David Goggins said the deaths of Robert Skidmore, 85, and John Snyder, 83, two men who contracted the waterborne Legionnaires' disease after being hospitalized at McLaren, could likely have been prevented had the Legionnaires outbreak been publicized. The judge said keeping the information from the public was "corrupt."

The Detroit News reported that Goggins found that "Lyon knew about the outbreak in 2015."

AP reported that Lyon's attorney, John Bursch, said the judge's decision was "mystifying" and quoted Bursch as saying outside court, "We had 20 pages of argument in our legal brief that he didn't address."

Lyon denies wrongdoing. AP reports Lyon's defense team said there was "not enough solid information to share earlier with the public."

Defense Says Ruling Could Have "Chilling Effect"

Crain's Detroit Business reported that Bursch previously had told the judge that prosecuting Lyon for manslaughter and misconduct in office could create a precedent and have a "chilling effect" on state employees, whose actions could be second-guessed by a prosecutor.

Teresa C. Long, MD, MPH, was assistant health commissioner and then health commissioner of Columbus, Ohio's public health department from 1986 to 2017. She was regularly faced with decisions as to when to notify about outbreaks.

She is now special adviser for community engagement and partnership and an adjunct associate professor at Ohio State University's College of Public Health in Columbus.

Long told Medscape Medical News that she is not aware of a case similar to Lyon's.

"As a local health official, I always depended on the best science available to make the difficult decision that would protect or further impact the health of our community. It's balancing the duty to protect the privacy of patients or persons involved in an outbreak investigation with the duty to inform or warn the public or any party who could be exposed or at risk," she said.

These were already extremely difficult decisions, Long said, but this ruling may cause "additional thought."

"This will be very sobering, but I think public officials will ultimately fall on the side of protecting the health of the public," she said.

The judge's ruling did not change the mind of Governor Snyder about Lyon's employment.

AP quoted the governor as saying Lyon "has my full faith and confidence" and that Lyon would remain Michigan's health director.

AP reports that 14 current or former state and local officials have been charged with crimes related either to Legionnaires' disease or lead in the water. Four took misdemeanor plea deals, and the other cases are in progress.

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