News Story

Legionnaires’ Disease Spike Cited To Justify Extended Lockdowns, But They May Have Triggered It

Argument related to campaign to ban unlimited government by emergency order

A group called Public Health Over Politicians has denounced efforts to limit the power of Michigan’s governor and public health officials to impose extended epidemic-related lockdowns without legislative consent. It cited a recent Legionnaires’ disease outbreak to argue against placing time limits on public health departments’ authority to enforce emergency orders.

But according to some public health experts, lengthy building closures caused by public health lockdown orders may themselves have triggered Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks.

On the other side of the legal issue, a campaign by Unlock Michigan has already used the initiated law process authorized by the state constitution to repeal a 1945 law that gave the governor the power to assume emergency powers with no time limit and without legislative consent. On July 13 the Board of State Canvassers approved language in a second Unlock Michigan initiative. The initiative would place time limits on emergency powers provisions in the state health code, limiting these to 28 days without approval from the Legislature or a local governing body.

The Public Health Over Politicians group opposes the previous initiative as well as the current one.

“This sudden spike in cases of Legionnaires’ disease highlights the extreme danger in hamstringing our public health experts or injecting partisan politics into our public health systems,” said spokesman, Mark Fisk, according to the Gongwer news service. Fisk has been prominent for many years in state Democratic politics and campaigns.

Michigan has seen a recent spike in Legionnaires’ disease, with 170 people affected in 25 counties, according to The Detroit News. The state’s chief medical executive, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, blames excessive rain and warmer weather on the outbreak.

The disease causes a serious type of pneumonia fatal to 10% of those who contract it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If contracted in a health care setting, the death rate rises to 25%.

But according to some health experts, COVID-19 shutdowns are the more likely cause of the rise in Legionnaires’ disease. When water in a facility is stagnant and pipes and water systems are not properly flushed, Legionella bacteria can grow. NSF International, an Ann Arbor-based product testing and certification organization, has warned about risks associated with reopening building used by schools, businesses, gyms, hotels, outpatient care facilities after a long closure:

“Low building occupancy and closures brought on by the pandemic have changed water use patterns, creating conditions favorable for Legionella growth. If inhaled, Legionella bacteria can lead to the potentially deadly Legionnaires’ disease, a severe form of pneumonia,” said Dave Purkiss, vice president of NSF International’s Global Water Division.

Buildings leased by the CDC in Atlanta and closed by lockdowns in 2020 were forced to close again after reopening due to an outbreak of Legionella bacteria.

“During the recent closures at our leased space in Atlanta, working through the General Services Administration (GSA), CDC directed the landlord to take protective actions,” the agency said in a written statement to CNN.

“Despite their best efforts, CDC has been notified that Legionella, which can cause Legionnaires’ Disease, is present in a cooling tower as well as in some water sources in the buildings. Out of an abundance of caution, we have closed these buildings until successful remediation is complete," the CDC said in a statement.

Michele Swanson, a professor of microbiology at the University of Michigan, expects more trouble ahead.

“It’s almost certain we’re going to be at risk for more Legionnaire’s disease after the shutdown,” she said, according to USA Today.

Fisk was asked about his comment linking the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease to limiting public health orders of unelected officials to 28 days, but there was no response.

Fisk was noted as a top state influencer in 2015 by Ballotpedia. He currently owns a communications and strategy firm, Byrum & Fisk, with Dianne Byrum, former Michigan House Democratic leader. His press releases for Public Health Over Politicians have been cited in media stories.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.