The highest-ranking government official charged in the Flint water investigation, Nick Lyon, heads to court.
During the first day of testimony in the case against the highest-ranking government official to face criminal charges in the Flint water crisis, a doctor said he believed that an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease stemmed from the change in Flint’s water source.
“My opinion is the most plausible, most likely explanation, is that the change in the water was responsible for an increase in Legionnaires’ disease cases,” said Dr. Marcus Zervos, division head of infectious disease for Henry Ford Health System.
His testimony came during the first day of the preliminary examination for Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon. The hearing, which will likely span several days in a Flint courtroom, will determine if there is enough evidence for the case to proceed to trial.
Lyon faces two felonies: involuntary manslaughter and misconduct in office. He is accused of causing the death of an 85-year-old man, who was diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease in 2015. Robert Skidmore died six months later of “end-stage congestive heart failure,” according to his death certificate.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette charged Lyon in June, alleging he failed to alert the public about a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Genesee County when he knew that another outbreak was foreseeable and misled and withheld information on the outbreak from Gov. Rick Snyder.
Lyon’s lawyers have said the “true facts simply do not support the prosecution’s claims.”
Zervos, who has worked with the state on the Legionella outbreak, said his team had a meeting with Lyon in 2016, and Lyon was told if they didn’t get started with their work, people would lose their lives.
Lyon’s response, Zervos testified, was: “People are going to die of something.”
Zervos has not yet been cross-examined by Lyon’s attorneys.
The Legionnaires’ outbreak in the Flint area is linked to 12 deaths during a 17-month period in in 2014 and 2015. In all, there were 91 confirmed cases of the disease in that time. Genesee County previously saw 6 to 13 cases annually.
Zervos, one of two witnesses to take the stand Thursday, said there likely were more cases and more deaths that weren’t reported. He also testified it’s important to notify medical providers and the public so they know there is a potential issue and can seek treatment if they have symptoms.
Tim Becker, the former chief deputy director of the Michigan the Department of Health and Human Services also testified Thursday. He said he knew in January 2015 that there was an increase in Legionella cases in the Flint area that coincided with the change in Flint’s drinking water source.
Becker said he was told employees were looking into the increase of cases in January 2015 and doesn’t recall hearing again about the Legionella, a bacteria often found in water that can lead to Legionnaires’ disease, until the end of that year.
In January 2016, Becker said he got a report showing Legionella cases in 2014 and learned the scope of the outbreak. Lyon, he said, also got the report.
“We all kind of had the light bulb moment,” he said.
Shortly after, Gov. Rick Snyder alerted the public about the outbreak, saying he had just learned of it.
Todd Flood, the special counsel handing the case for Schuette, questioned Becker on why a health advisory wasn’t issued to residents in 2015 when a year later, Oscoda residents were advised to seek an alternative water supply for drinking and preparing food because chemicals seeped into well groundwater at the Wurtsmith Air Force Base.
Becker acknowledged it could have been done.
Under cross-examination, one of Lyon’s attorneys, Britt Cobb, pointed out the difference in the two situations. Letters went to 24 homes they knew had contaminated well water.
Becker also said experience with the Flint situation helped guide the decision to issue the advisory.
Testimony continues Friday morning before 67th District Judge David Goggins.
Contact Elisha Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-222-5144. Follow on Twitter: @elishaanderson
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