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Detroit’s health director rejects claim there’s a public health crisis due to water shutoffs

Courtesy of the Detroit Health Department
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun is the executive director and health officer for the Detroit Health Department.

Detroit activists are highlighting what they say is a growing public health crisis. Today they brought in medical experts from outside the city to discuss the potential health implications of mass water shutoffs in Detroit. They want a moratorium.

“There’s no question that access to safe and clean water from a health perspective is a top priority,” Detroit’s top health officer, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said.

That’s why she works closely with the city’s water department, which says 89% of water customers who are cut off are restored within 24 hours.

“We want to make sure that, even if there are families who are potentially going to have their water shut off, making sure that we know and we can provide the supports from the health department standpoint so that we don’t put those families in a tougher spot,” Khaldun said.

She says she’s personally made phone calls on behalf of residents to the water department, trying to help them the “navigate” the system and get help if they qualify.

Plus, she's been keeping an eye on the number of skin and soft tissue infections and other water-borne illnesses.

“We have epidemiologists in our department that track that. And so we’ve absolutely made sure that we’re looking for any increases in any skin or soft tissue infections as well and at this point, to date, we’ve not seen an increase in that.”

In late 2014, Rochelle Weatherspoon underwent a major surgery. She caught MRSA, a drug-resistant bacteria, at the hospital, which extended her stay to more than a week.

“And it was like everything happened like dominos,” Weatherspoon said. The next domino came the day she got home.

“Our water was off and I had a receipt from the week before of giving them [the water department] what I could,” Weatherspoon said.

But that wasn’t enough. It took Weatherspoon more than a week to get the money together to get the water back on. She says it got cut off again a month later. She worried she’d spread MRSA to her family without being able to regularly wash her hands.

Health experts and activists gathered at Wayne State University today say Weatherspoon’s case exemplifies the potential health risks with water shutoffs. Weatherspoon has since been able to get assistance through a city-run program for low-income residents. But she says she still struggles every month to keep the water on.

Dr. Wendy Johnson, the former director of Cleveland’s health department and the current director at La Familia Medical Center in New Mexico, says Detroit and Michigan health officials should be taking the shutoffs more seriously.

“If you did see upticks (in water borne illnesses), then what would you do? And if you did see upticks, how do you know if it’s from the water shutoffs and why aren’t you studying this more?”

Activists allege the city is downplaying the results of a preliminary study done by Henry Ford’s Global Health Initiative. It shows a correlation between patients who live on city blocks with a water shutoff and those who were diagnosed with skin infections and water borne illnesses. The study does not show causation.

A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services referred questions to the Detroit Health Department.

“Without sharing too much, we are working with Henry Ford actually on some interventions and more things that we can do on the ground,” Detroit’s Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said.

“We can’t quite share all those details yet. But there are meetings happening and we’re working on really supporting the residents of the city. So it’s not something that’s dust collecting on a shelf. Again, I know the researchers well and we are working together collaboratively to protect the people of Detroit,” she said.

Marcus Zervos, a doctor at Henry Ford, issued this written statement:

As the senior author on this project, I am disheartened by the reaction of activist groups. We approached this issue as an exploratory effort into the possible public health impact of water shutoffs, understanding that the results would only be preliminary and shape the framework for a future comprehensive cause and effect study. Unfortunately, this study continues to be used for political purposes and our health system’s integrity is being unfairly challenged. This is unacceptable as we have a stellar reputation for public health and medical research.

Zervos and the activists do agree on this: Without more detailed data from the city, it will be tough to conduct a more complete study.

“It’s just a fact that the study, unfortunately, does not allow us to make these causalities,” Khaldun said.

Detroit does not release the addresses of people who have been shut off, citing privacy concerns. Detroit Water and Sewer Department spokesman Bryan Peckinpaugh says there’s been some discussion about sharing data with health institutions, but “we would not release that data without customers’ permission.”

Instead, he says there’s a big focus on getting low-income residents help. Peckinpaugh says there’s still more than $2 million available through the Water Residential Assistance Program.

Wayne State’s Peter Hammer, who helped organize Wednesday’s medical panel, balks at the notion that privacy concerns should block future research.

“People have all sorts of reasons not to be identified as having their water shut off, but data is dealt with all the time that has tremendous sensitivity to it in ways that permit legitimate research to go forward, if the city had the will to do so,” Hammer said.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Radio’s Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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