Health officials in Michigan this week honored Dr. Eden Wells with the state’s top award for an eminent career in public health—despite that Wells is currently facing several charges in connection with the Flint water crisis, including involuntary manslaughter.
On Wednesday, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) announced that Wells was awarded the Roy R. Manty Distinguished Service Award from the Michigan Association for Local Public Health (MALPH) and the Michigan Public Health Association (MPHA).
The award is described by the two associations as the “highest individual award given by the local public health community.”
In a statement, Dr. Annette Mercatante, president of MALPH, explained the selection, saying:
Dr. Wells consistently provides local public health departments and practioners[sic] timely (usually immediate), intelligent, expert, reliable, and compassionate support for the entire array of expected and unexpected community health issues that arise daily in our State. Her contribution to the health and well-being of the people of Michigan is huge and greatly appreciated by all those privileged to work with her, and should be acknowledged on behalf of every person who lives or works in Michigan.
Wells took up the job of the chief medical executive for MDHHS in May 2015. That was just a year after state-appointed emergency managers made the catastrophic decision to switch the city of Flint’s water supply to cut costs. The swap from treated water sourced from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to improperly treated water from Flint River caused lead and other heavy metals from aging plumbing to pour into the city’s water, exposing residents to dangerous levels.
Researchers also linked the water crisis to a flood of Legionnaires’ disease cases. The potentially life-threatening disease is caused by Legionella bacteria, which may have festered in the city’s pipes after the improper treatment interfered with disinfectants and released bacterial nutrients into the tap water. Officials tallied around 100 Legionnaires’ cases, leading to 12 deaths in the wake of the water switch.
Flood of charges
Wells’ charge of involuntary manslaughter is linked to one of those 12 deaths—that of John Snyder in 2015. Prosecutors allege that Wells knew about the Legionnaires’ outbreak as early as March of 2015 but failed to warn the public. They also allege that she later lied about when she learned of the outbreak, saying it wasn’t until late September or early October. The MDHHS did not issue a public advisory about the outbreak until January of 2016.
Wells was unexpectedly slapped with the involuntary manslaughter charge in October of last year. The charge was added to others, including willful neglect of duty, misconduct in office, and lying to a peace officer. Wells allegedly threatened to withhold funding from the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership if it continued to investigate the outbreak, prosecutors say.
In light of the allegations, officials in Flint were stunned by her award. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver released a news statement Thursday, October 11, saying:
How is one honored for public health when they did not protect the health of the public? While I understand that we are innocent until proven guilty in this country, this is just disrespectful.
Wells’ legal team and supporters say Wells has been wrongly charged in the case and has championed the health of Flint residents in the wake of the water problems.
An additional 14 current and former state and local officials were criminally charged in connection with the water crisis. Five of those officials also face involuntary manslaughter charges, including director of Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services, Nick Lyon.