A 52-year-old woman from Michigan’s Genesee County was killed by Legionnaires’ disease late in December, making her the 13th victim in the deadly outbreak caused by the Flint water crisis. Two waves of the outbreak in 2015 killed 12 and sickened nearly 90.

Karenise Westbrook of Flint died of the same Legionella bacteria strain as Robert Skidmore, who died in December 2015. Westbrook was named as the third victim in a litigation case against government officials facing charges in an ongoing case in state court.

Marc Edwards, the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech

Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who helped to uncover the crisis in 2015, said Westbrook’s case is concerning and needs to be investigated. “Legionnaires’ disease doesn’t just sit in a person’s body,” he said. “Westbrook had to have come in contact with the disease in recent months.”

The incubation period – the amount of time between breathing in the bacteria and developing symptoms – is usually 2 to 10 days after exposure and can be as much as 16 days.

Skidmore died after contracting Legionnaires’ disease while a patient at McLaren Flint, a regional hospital serving Flint and the Genesee County areas of mid-Michigan. Westbrook was never a patient at the hospital, but she worked at a nearby assisted living facility, according to special prosecutor Todd Flood, who contends the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak was caused by Flint switching its water supply to the Flint River in April 2014.

A relative of Westbrook’s was expected to testify in the case against four Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employees. Stephen Busch, Michael Prysby, Patrick Cook and Liane Shekter-Smith are facing a variety of charges:

  • Busch, the District 8 water supervisor, and Prysby, a District 8 water engineer, are facing four felonies and two misdemeanor charges, including involuntary manslaughter.
  • Cook, a specialist in the department’s community drinking water unit, is facing two felonies and one misdemeanor charge.
  • Shekter-Smith, the former chief of drinking water and municipal assistance, is facing two felonies and one misdemeanor charge, including involuntary manslaughter.
What is Legionnaires’ disease? 

Legionnaires’ disease – also called Legionellosis and Legionella pneumonia – is a severe type of pneumonia or lung infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 25,000 cases of pneumonia due to the Legionella bacteria (Legionella pneumophila) occur each year, but only 5,000 cases are reported because of the disease’s nonspecific signs and symptoms, and 10 percent of those will die from the infection.

How do you catch Legionnaires’ disease? 

Legionella bacteria are contracted by inhaling microscopic water droplets, usually mist or vapor. The bacteria, which grow best in warm water, are found primarily in human-made environments.

Outbreaks have been linked to a range of sources, such as:

  • large plumbing systems
  • large water systems, such as those used in hotels, hospitals, and nursing homes
  • cooling towers in air conditioning systems
  • hot water tanks/heaters
  • showers/faucets
  • swimming pools
  • hot tubs/whirlpools
  • equipment used in physical therapy
  • mist machines and sink sprayers
  • decorative fountains.