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CDC letter: McLaren Flint Hospital has spread Legionnaires’ disease for 10+ years

Published: Jan. 12, 2021 at 5:00 PM EST
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FLINT, Mich. (WJRT) - The CDC says McLaren Flint Hospital has been a source of legionella bacteria growth for more than a decade.

ABC12 uncovered a letter saying the hospital has been a source of the bacteria since 2008. McLaren Flint’s issues with Legionnaire’s disease came to the forefront in 2014 during the Flint water crisis.

The state reported 90 people contracted Legionnaire’s disease in 2014 and 2015, saying McLaren Flint Hospital was the common source for the cases.

In documents that ABC12 uncovered, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the illness had been an issue at the hospital six years before Flint switched its water source -- and was still connected to cases in 2019.

The 47-page letter from the CDC to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is dated December of 2019. A former state health director said he obtained it after defense attorneys connected to the the Flint water criminal investigation accidentally got a hold of it.

“I’ve been sitting on this for several months and it’s been gnawing at me that this has not been put out,” said Jim Haveman, who led the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services under former Govs. John Engler and Rick Snyder.

Haveman said he didn’t want to undermine current Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon, but said he’s waited long enough to release the letter.

“So the question to me as a citizen -- I’m not a physician -- is why weren’t questions raised about, hey McLaren, what are you doing?” he said.

SCIENTIFIC REVIEW RAISES CONCERNS

Legionella bacteria is naturally occurring, but it can proliferate to dangerous levels in warm and confined spaces where water is present. People get Legionnaire’s disease, which is a form of pneumonia, by inhaling water droplets containing high levels of the bacteria.

The letter entitled an “investigation of healthcare-associated Legionnaires’ Disease” in Flint says five people contracted Legionnaire’s disease from January 2018 to June 2019. The CDC confirms one of those cases is linked to McLaren Flint, but officials believe all five probably are.

Two of those people died.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs issued orders in June 2019 requiring McLaren Flint to address the Legionnaire’s risk. However, neither state agency disclosed then that the CDC was in Flint to investigate beforehand.

The newly released letter says scientific review “...raised concern that conditions supporting Legionella growth may continue to exist within the facility.”

The CDC also repeatedly pointed out “a particular strain of Legionella identified in the McLaren Flint water system has been associated with disease for more than a decade.” Cases date back to 2008, which is six years before Flint switched its drinking water source to the Flint River in April 2014.

So the CDC says something needs to be done to “to eradicate this outbreak strain from all building water systems in order to protect patients, visitors, and staff from exposure to Legionella.”

INVESTIGATION AND RECOMMENDATIONS

While in Flint, the CDC investigation team reviewed the hospital’s water management program put in place in 2016. According to the letter, McLaren Flint focuses on the hot water systems, which is reducing the risk of legionella, but not eradicating it.

“When Legionella environmental sampling has been expanded to the cold water system in the course of case response or efforts to investigate issues at points of use, Legionella was detected,” the letter says.

The document points out that drinking fountains, ice machines, faucets and showerheads tested positive for the legionella bacteria.

“It is possible that the drinking fountains could be contaminated between the filter and the point of use, meaning that the inline filters may not be preventing Legionella transmission,” the letter says.

Five pages of recommendations from the CDC follow, including:

  • The use of point-of-use filters
  • Taking ice machines and water fountains out of service until they’re disinfected and tested
  • Test all patients with pneumonia for legionella
  • Train clinicians on how to diagnose and treat Legionnaires’ disease

The CDC also provided guidance to their water management team to strengthen their testing measures.

The CDC makes it clear that it’s up to the state to determine whether McLaren Flint is following those recommendations and whether they make a difference in eradicating the risk for legionella growth and transmission.

NO FURTHER CASES REPORTED

McLaren Flint disputed the need for the state orders issued in June 2019.

“We believe this order is unfounded and represents the state’s continuous efforts to shift blame for their bad decisions made five years ago onto our hospital,” says a statement from the hospital issued the same day as the state orders.

This week, a McLaren Flint spokesman said the hospital is in compliance with all of the recommendations, the facility provides state regulators with regular updates on its water management program and, “McLaren Flint maintains a stringent, highly monitored water management program. It was designed by some of the nation’s leading water experts and is routinely reviewed by both internal and external environmental safety professionals.”

McLaren Flint says it received no further communication about its water management program since January 2020.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and McLaren Flint both declined to comment on why the public was not informed about the continued communication regarding the potentially deadly risk of Legionnaire’s disease in 2019.

“No healthcare-associated cases of Legionnaires Disease have been reported to MDHHS by McLaren Flint Hospital during 2020,” a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services told ABC12 this week.

ABC12 is continuing to investigate whether the Flint water crisis caused an uptick in Legionnaire’s disease cases at McLaren Flint or whether the switch to using Flint River water in the city exacerbated an existing problem.

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