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Flint task force member, former state health chief weighs in on report

Mar 25, 2016

This week the Flint Water Advisory Task Force released its 116-page report.

Although Gov. Snyder appointed the task force, he and his administration were not spared in its frank findings.

At the formal release of the task force report, co-chair Chris Kolb singled out the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality as having, as the report said, “a degree of intransigence and belligerence that has no place in government.”

“It is extremely troublesome to me,” Kolb said at the release, “that an agency whose primary role is to protect human health and the environment came to these decisions, and they never backed off those decisions no matter how many red flags they saw.”

On Wednesday’s Stateside, the other co-chair Ken Sikkema noted the Emergency Management Law contributed to the Flint water debacle.

“By having an emergency manager that has virtually dictatorial control over a city, you lose the checks and balances that representative government provides,” he told us.

Dr. Matthew Davis is another member of the task force, and a professor of pediatrics and internal medicine at the University of Michigan Health System.

"By having an emergency manager that has virtually dictatorial over a city, you lose the checks and balances that representative government provides."

From the top, the report has some strong language. It opens: “The Flint water crisis is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction, and environmental injustice.”

Davis tells us the task force made several important points in the report, but that first sentence pretty well sums up many of the lessons learned through the investigation.

“The state government and, to some degree, its partners at local levels and at the federal level, did not respond in the appropriate way to several indications that things were quite horribly wrong with the water supply that was being used for drinking water in Flint. The color was wrong, the taste was wrong, the smell was wrong, there were infections from E. coli initially and later legionella that may be related to the water supply as well.”

So what does the report recommend be done to change the bureaucratic culture and what’s being called the political ineptitude that lead to the lead poisoning of an entire Michigan city?

“What needs to happen on several levels is a change to be more responsive to concerns expressed by the public,” Davis says.

"Unfortunately, what happened here was a grave failure in terms of not having the appropriate expertise at the right time to do right by the people of Flint with their water supply."

“One of the challenges that we brought up in our report is that with the emergency manager law, there was no ability for the local population to go to their locally-elected officials and get something done in terms of responding to their concerns about the water.”

The emergency manager law was sort of billed as a way to shortcut the local council and take immediate action, but Davis tells us that may have done more harm than good. He says emergency managers lack the actual experience required to make decisions such as switching a water source.

“In other words, the emergency manager is focused really on just the fiscal health on something like a city, or a school system in the case of Detroit right now, and not to handle the full breadth of decisions that need to happen at the local level. And unfortunately, what happened here was a grave failure in terms of not having the appropriate expertise at the right time to do right by the people of Flint with their water supply,” he says.

The report also criticizes the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for its mishandling of the outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in Flint and Genesee County. Davis served with the DHHS as the Michigan Department of Community Health’s Chief Medical Executive when the first wave of Legionnaires' cases cropped up in 2014.

“Unfortunately, I was not aware of the Legionnaires' cases,” Davis says. He explains that when cases occur within a county, that county is expected to follow up on them, and DHHS only gets involved at the county's request.

“The county did ask for that help and asked for the help from the epidemiological team. The chief medical executive, the role that I had, is only asked to be part of those discussions when there’s some question or when … asked to provide input,” he says.

The epidemiologists are trained to handle the evaluation, and in this case Davis says they responded to the Genesee County Health Department to assist in the investigation of the 2014 Legionnaires' cases.

“Should I have been part of this task force?” Davis asks. “I take that question very seriously, and it’s something that I thought about a lot when I was asked to be part of the task force.”

"I think that anyone who sees the report that we released yesterday will see that we were more than critical."

He tells us he was asked to be part of the task force because he understands the inner workings of the DHHS and because he could apply his experience as a physician and his knowledge of public health policy  to the questions presented before the task force.

Davis says there was also some question over whether, given his role at DHHS, he could be fairly critical of the department in terms of its role in the Flint water situation.

“I think that anyone who sees the report that we released yesterday will see that we were more than critical,” Davis says.

Davis tells us one of the task force’s key recommendations is to presume that all children in Flint have been exposed to harmful levels of lead and treat them as such.

It has been said that only a small fraction of Flint’s children were actually lead-exposed, but Davis tells us they simply “don’t have information that suggests there are many, many kids in Flint who are safe just because they weren’t tested.”

Additionally, he explains that the lead test performed on the children only indicates their lead level for the past 30 to 35 days, and so it’s possible a child may have been exposed to lead, but their levels could have normalized by the time they ended up in the doctor’s office.

“Given what we know is true about the lead in the water in Flint, it makes sense from a scientific point of view and especially for the health and wellbeing of those kids to be very thorough in our follow-up for them.”

Dr. Matthew Davis tells us more about the task force’s findings and recommendations in our conversation above.