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Q&A: How the scars of Flint's water crisis shook faith in Covid-19 vaccine

In 2014, Flint, Michigan switched its water source, causing a crisis that resulted in several deaths and myriad health problems. Now, a strong sense of distrust in government and public health officials is prevalent in residents, the majority of whom are Black and Brown. With the coronavirus vaccine currently rolling out across the country, scarred Flint residents are still wondering whether or not it's safe to take. CNN's Omar Jimenez reports.

Posted: Feb 28, 2021 2:50 PM
Updated: Feb 28, 2021 2:50 PM

Mistrust in the government is nothing new for the residents of Flint, Michigan.

In 2014, the state's public officials assured the residents that their water was safe to drink. It wasn't. Now, with the coronavirus vaccine rolling out across the country, some Flint residents are wondering whether or not it's safe to take. Hesitancy is particularly high in some Black communities, which have a history of being discriminated against in the US health care system (and beyond).

Omar Jimenez traveled to Flint to talk to residents about how the water crisis has impacted their views on the coronavirus vaccine.

CNN's Go There team asked readers to submit questions about what it was like reporting in Flint: How are the residents coping and why does their skepticism persist? And what's in store as the vaccine rollout continues?

Can Flint residents drink safely from the tap yet? What is the residual impact on children and the younger generation?

In short, yes by federal standards. Does everyone do it? No. In 2018, then Gov. Rick Synder said there was no more need to stick to bottled water after years of steady decreases of the lead and copper level from above 15 parts per billion in 2016 (a federal threshold that requires action) to below 5 parts per billion by early 2018.

In 2019, the city of Flint released a water quality report showing that 90% of high-risk samples collected were at three parts per billion, well below the federal requirement. The likely source there, according to the report, is "corrosion of household plumbing erosion of natural deposits."

"Drinking water faucets manufactured before 2014 were allowed to contain up to 8 percent lead. This lead can sometimes find its way into our drinking water," according to the state of Michigan. So filters continue to be very popular.

While the water is safe by federal standards, the small amount of lead is still lead and is part of why so many people still choose not to drink right from the tap, including many children who have grown up since 2014 with this practice feeling commonplace. But more immediately, the American Journal of Public Health found that after the city made the decision to switch its water source to the Flint River at the start of the crisis, "The percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels increased after water source change, particularly in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Water is a growing source of childhood lead exposure because of aging infrastructure."

The city currently gets its water from Lake Huron.

According to the CDC, effects from lead exposure include: slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, hearing and speech problems, and damage to the brain and nervous systems.

Bottom line, if kids are not feeling the physical repercussions of this, the mental ones still exist. I interviewed a man who told me his young son asks if it's safe to drink from the water fountain when he visits other states. This is purely an instinct borne out of growing up in Flint over the last 10 years.

This is a perfect setting to raise awareness of why some communities are wary of the information being distributed. What Flint endured and continues to endure is devastating. In what ways can we help?

In all honesty, a huge part of this comes from being able to spot misinformation but also putting pressure on the community and press to independently verify the numbers that are put out by city and state officials. Part of Flint discovering the scale of the issue came from community-based reporting. It's why groups like the Flint River Watershed Coalition, Healthy Flint Research Coordinating Center, and the Flint Water Study exist. The latter has existed as an independent research team from Virginia Tech to help study drinking water issues in Flint.

I'm sure there are groups you can donate to on the immediate side of things, but overall, helping is simply not letting what they experienced happen in vain. Flint can't be a forgotten chapter in history but instead a reminder about the real life consequences of cost-cutting at the expense of health and the pressure it sometimes takes from a community to foster real change.

Is there anything that surprised you while you were reporting on this story and this community?

Yes, honestly it was the skepticism that still exists. It's easy to fall into the trap of "Oh Flint HAPPENED, it's not still happening," which is true to some extent. The water quality may be much better now. Yet, to hear from people they still don't trust the water was the face-to-face (mask) reminder I needed to fully realize the generational impact of just a few short years when this crisis peaked.

One of the people I spoke to showed me the crockpot she still keeps in her bathroom as a reminder of the time she used to boil water just to wash her face. She doesn't use it anymore but it sits there as a memorial of sorts, a tomb of more threatening times. And then when you translate this mentality to the Covid-19 vaccine you can imagine why there's hesitancy. It's been declared safe by just about as many medical organizations as you can possibly have but for these people they've been told something was safe before, and it wasn't. So, it's not that many won't ever get the vaccine, but in a similar strategy to the peak of the crisis they want to do their own research first.

Do the residents you spoke to feel safe talking about health and safety concerns with those who are tasked with helping them stay safe and healthy? Do you see any level of trust?

This is a very good question, and overall I would say the answer is yes. People see the Flint water crisis very much in the near view as opposed to far in the rear view. I think the level of trust actually comes less from blindly following what those in power tell them, but rather combining that with their own intuition and community resources.

One woman I spoke to helps run Healthy Flint Research Coordinating Center webinars and part of their mission is to allow the thousands they've been able to connect with to hear directly from doctors and other trustworthy staples in the community so they can balance what they may be told from the state and/or city with what those they may better relate to are saying. There is trust, but the trust seems to consciously now come from a variety of sources as opposed to following just one.

How is the standard of care in Flint now during the pandemic? How are the residents being treated by the medical community?

The standard of care overall is much like you would see in most other jurisdictions. Not perfect, but working. When it comes to Covid, also like many other places, the county that houses Flint saw a spike in November and December but was able to get their numbers under control and even now see less than 100 confirmed cases a day.

As for how residents are being treated, I think engagement takes on a whole new meaning. Citizens are actively seeking out more information as those in the medical community realize more and more the weight and importance their speaking out has. Even a high school student I spoke to in Flint is involved in more clubs regarding health than I even knew existed during my high school days.

People, community and health care alike, seem to realize they share a collective goal of not wanting to go back to where things were just a few years ago. Again, while not perfect (and I'm sure I'm missing individual grievances), those in the medical community are participating in webinars, they're participating in community events, partly because rising to the current challenge takes everyone and transparency seems to be the guiding principle.

I'd like to know about the diversity within these groups who feel hesitancy toward the vaccine; are there subgroups distinguished down by education, economics, etc. that might feel differently?

There's a lot of story to tell from the numbers alone. For example, as of February 25, right around 50,000 Black people had been given the first dose as opposed to roughly 560,000 White people throughout the state of Michigan. It's safe to say that those in minority communities are those that often approach any sort of vaccine push with skepticism as historically they are the groups that have been taken advantage of.

Of course you have the horrific Tuskegee experiments, even the treatment of Henrietta Lacks, but more directly the vaccination rate in Genesee County, which houses Flint, remains relatively low with a cumulative coverage of about 20%. But the county is 75% White and 20% Black, according to the US Census Bureau. Clearly, it's not just minorities in this area that are grappling with skepticism.

Also remember, "Drinking water faucets manufactured before 2014 were allowed to contain up to 8 percent lead," according to the state of Michigan, so those in poorer communities that are more likely to have faucets in this category are also less likely to be the first in line for what the state may be telling them to do.

For the record, all of the vaccines that are on the market per FDA Emergency Use Authorization have been proven through numerous rigorous studies as safe to use.

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