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How the mistrust caused by the Flint water crisis is seeping into views of the COVID-19 vaccine

Beenish Ahmed
Michigan Radio



The line of cars queuing for free bottled water at the Greater Holy Temple Church of God in Christ in northern Flint reaches into the hundreds by 10 a.m., when water distribution begins. For many in Flint, queuing for cases of free bottled water has been a weekly fixture of life ever since elevated levels of lead were discovered in the city supply more than six years ago. Although much of the lead has now been abated, residents’ skepticism remains — and it’s now seeping into their views about the coronavirus vaccine.

Credit Beenish Ahmed / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Dorita Taylor is a lifelong Flint resident who says the water crisis left her with a mistrust that now makes her skeptical of the coronavirus vaccine.

“I just feel like we've all been lied to and mistreated as a city,” said Dorita Taylor, who was among those collecting free water on a recent Thursday morning. The water crisis left Taylor with a “big mistrust” of the leaders who are now calling on anyone who qualifies to get the vaccine. 

“We don't know what's in it, what it's about,” Taylor, a 65-year-old respite care worker, said. “I don't think it can be trusted this early. And I'm not going to be the guinea pig, so I don't want it.” 

“To me, that is a very, very valid perspective,” said Debra Furr-Holden, an epidemiologist who heads the Flint Center for Health Equity Solutions and sits on both state and local task forces aimed at reducing racial disparities in coronavirus transmission. 

“I think the Flint water crisis was experienced by many in the Flint community as a trauma. [Residents] were told that the water was safe to drink when in fact the leaders of the state and the city knew that it wasn't,” she said, referring to deliberate misinformation that is now the subject of two recent lawsuits

“It's more than just medical mistrust,” she added. “It's well-earned systemic and societal mistrust for a system that doesn't treat us fairly.” 

Furr-Holden said that mistrust extends far beyond Flint. Black people across the country experience racial disparities in medical treatment that have been well-documented. Implicit bias by medical providers and decision-making in health care algorithms have been shown to lead to unequal treatment. Black women are two to three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women nationwide, and a study published in 2016 found that black children were less likely than white children to receive the appropriate pain medicine for appendicitis.

Now that a vaccine is available for COVID-19, Black Americans are the most likely to take a “wait and see” approach towards the shot, according to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. About half of Black respondents said they don’t think the vaccine roll-out is taking their needs into account. 

Yvonne Lewis anticipated those gaps, given her work during the Flint water crisis. When the pandemic broke out, the first thought on her mind was, “How can we get the word out?” Lewis, who heads the Flint-based National Center for African American Health Consciousness, set up a webinar for residents to connect directly with city and state officials as well as local leaders about the coronavirus. 

Lewis recalled that in the early days of the pandemic, rumors that Black people were immune to the novel coronavirus ran rampant. Then, a different picture began to emerge when it was found that Black people in the United States faced a disproportionately high rate of infections. That shifting information left many feeling whipsawed. And the recent focus on Black people getting vaccinated has left some wondering, as Lewis put it, “Why? You've never been that concerned about African-Americans getting in line first before.”

Credit Beenish Ahmed / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The Greater Holy Temple Church of God in Christ in Flint began to hand out donated food in addition to water to address food insecurity caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

At Greater Holy Temple Church of God in Christ, Horace Sturdivant said he’s planning to get the vaccine in the coming months, but would like to research the side-effects a little more before he does. The 65-year-old military veteran said he’s been personally affected by the water crisis — he said medical tests found that he, his wife, and their children all tested positive for lead in their bone marrow. Sturdivant said that experience has not informed his views about the pandemic. But he was mistrustful of how the Trump administration handled the issue.

“They said it was going to be gone by Easter, I believe it was,” he said from his car as snow swirled around it. “And then by November, he said it was going to be normal hearing about the virus. And now we got 400,000 who have died so far.” 

Dorita Taylor, the home respite care worker, said she has no plans to get the vaccine any time soon, even if it means more missed birthday parties and dinner outings.  

I think I'll wait until I see enough other people doing it and being okay about it.” 

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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