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Scars from Flint's water crisis shake city's faith in Covid vaccine

“When you tell us that the water is safe but it really wasn’t, that relationship between leadership and the community is still damaged,” a Flint pastor said.
The Rev. Ezra L. Tillman Jr. said he's still not ready to embrace the new Covid-19 vaccine, just like he doesn't drink the water in Flint, even though state and local officials now again say it's safe.
The Rev. Ezra L. Tillman Jr. said he's still not ready to embrace the new Covid-19 vaccine, just like he doesn't drink the water in Flint, even though state and local officials now again say it's safe.Jake May /

DETROIT — In the weeks since the arrival of the first Covid-19 vaccines, the Rev. Dr. Sarah Bailey has been fielding calls from friends and neighbors in Flint.

Callers ask about the new vaccines' side effects, said Bailey, who runs a faith-based health awareness organization called Bridges Into the Future.

They wonder whether the messenger RNA — or mRNA — vaccines can change a person's DNA, she said.

"They say, 'Ooh, can I catch Covid from it?'"

Bailey, an elder at Flint’s Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International and the vice chair of a local network called Community-Based Organization Partners, reassures them. The vaccine won't give them the virus and it won't affect their DNA, she tells them, just as all major medical authorities have said based on extensive testing. She walks them through the science behind the vaccines.

When she's done, she said, "they're still not that sure, but they're less fearful."

The people reaching out to Bailey aren't folks who will take a vaccine just because the federal government tells them it's safe and effective. They live in Flint, a city still reeling from the 18 months starting in 2014 when public officials insisted that tap water, eventually found to contain dangerously high lead levels, was safe to drink.

Water Emergency Declared in Flint
Keeghan Nelson, 4, has the lead level in his blood tested in Flint, Mich., on Feb. 4, 2016. Brittany Greeson / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

A number of those officials, including former Gov. Rick Snyder, were charged this week with crimes related to the crisis. Snyder, whose administration was running Flint through an emergency manager when the disastrous decision to change the city’s water supply was made, pleaded not guilty Thursday morning to two misdemeanor charges of willful neglect of duty.

Many Flint residents are Black, and they have long memories of racist treatment by doctors who dismissed or neglected their medical needs. They might not have physicians they trust with questions about their health.

That's why public health officials in Michigan are turning to trusted community leaders like Bailey to help spread the word about the new vaccines.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said the state's plan to vaccinate 70 percent of residents as quickly as possible includes efforts to enlist people like block club captains, fraternity and sorority presidents and religious leaders to promote the vaccine — an effort Khaldun said is especially important in the Black community, where what she called "vaccine hesitancy" is high.

For now, interviews with faith and community leaders in Flint show that while some, like Bailey, welcome the new vaccines, others see parallels with the decision by state and local officials to change the city's water supply without first making sure it would be safe. They worry that the new vaccines have been rushed. Just as they still don't drink the water, which local authorities again say is safe, they're not yet ready to embrace the new vaccines.

"When you tell us that the water is safe but it really wasn't, that relationship between leadership and the community is still damaged," said Todd Womack, the pastor of community connections at Central Church of the Nazarene in Flint. "That just layers the historical trauma that has presented itself in our community."

It's not just Flint, Khaldun said, citing state surveys that show that only about a quarter of African Americans in Michigan say they're likely or very likely to be vaccinated, compared to 47 percent of white residents. That's even though African Americans in Michigan and across the country are more likely to die or to be hospitalized by the virus.

"There's a reason, a quite valid reason, for there to be concerns about how the health care system in general, and often health care systems and the government together, have treated the African American community historically in the United States," said Khaldun, a Black woman and a practicing physician, who just got her second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. "There is still systemic racism that exists. There is still, quite frankly, sometimes explicit bias that exists in the health care system, and so I think we need to name it and not shame these groups of people where they may have some hesitancy."

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun,
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan's chief medical executive, speaks at a news conference in Lansing on May 26, 2020, as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer looks on. Michigan Executive Office of the Governor via AP file

The hesitancy is even more pronounced in Flint, where residents have faced "trauma after trauma after trauma," she said. "I know there's a lot of mistrust in government because of the Flint crisis, which was terrible, so I think it's really walking with community members, making sure they have access to the information."

The process of spreading the information is just beginning, but it's going to need to come from more than one place, said Debra Furr-Holden, an epidemiologist who has been leading community discussions about the virus as director of the Flint Center for Health Equity Solutions, a group of researchers, policymakers and community leaders targeting health disparities.

"They don't want to hear it from the government, and they don't want to hear it solely from the health care sector," she said. "They want to hear it from multiple sectors and get multiple trusted and credible messages that the vaccine is safe and the vaccine will be a benefit to them."

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Furr-Holden, who is also the associate dean for public health integration at Michigan State University, helped moderate an online discussion with Flint faith leaders on Dec. 11 — the day the Food and Drug Administration approved the first vaccine for emergency use. She told the panel that she has participated in conversations with national public health officials, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, who have asked her to help them restore African Americans' trust in the health care system.

"My answer was hecks naw!" she said, noting the "well-earned" mistrust the Black community has for the medical establishment.

"As a public health professional, I see the important need for prevention. I see the important need for a safe and credible vaccine to be distributed and administered equitably in our community," she said.

But at the same time, "relationships are built on trust, and trust takes time," she said. "They developed a vaccine at warp speed, and they're trying to skip a bunch of processes in the trust and relationship-building process."

Furr-Holden then asked the faith leaders on the panel what they would need to encourage people in their communities to be vaccinated.

One, the Rev. Ezra L. Tillman Jr., the senior pastor of First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church on Flint's south side, replied that he hears from many people, including politicians, who want to reach Flint's Black community through its Black churches. He makes it a priority to vigorously guard the door, he said.

"You don't allow your pulpit to become a platform," he said, adding that he understands "what you are risking when you open these platforms to a community that's already been taken advantage of, misused, abused."

Womack, who was also on the panel, answered Furr-Holden's question with a knock on elected officials, including former President Barack Obama, who visited Flint after the water crisis and tried to calm fears by publicly drinking the water.

"You're not going to catch me drinking a glass of water, saying the water's safe," Womack said. "I'm not going to be that man."

Image: U.S. President Barack Obama drinks a glass of filtered water from Flint, a city struggling with the effects of lead-poisoned drinking water, during a meeting will local and federal authorities in Michigan
President Barack Obama drinks a glass of filtered water from Flint on May 4, 2016, during a visit to Michigan.Carlos Barria / Reuters file

In interviews last week, Tillman and Womack said they have been watching as people across the country have been vaccinated.

Both have personally and painfully felt the devastation that Covid-19 has brought down on their community. Tillman said he has presided over about a dozen funerals for family members, friends and parishioners lost to the virus. Womack lost his father last month. But both said they're still not ready to promote the new vaccines.

Tillman said he became even more skeptical of the vaccines when the national media swarmed Sandra Lindsay, a Black New York nurse who was one of the first people in the country to be vaccinated last month. The person who administered the vaccine for the photo was also a Black woman.

Image: Nurse Sandra Lindsay
Nurse Sandra Lindsay receives a Covid-19 vaccine on Dec. 14, 2020, in Queens, N.Y.Mark Lennihan / Pool via AP file

"In this country, we know that African Americans have always been targeted as test dummies," he said, referring to unethical medical experiments including the infamous Tuskegee study, which left hundreds of Black men with untreated syphilis for decades.

He plans to wait for more data as more people are vaccinated, he said.

He'll counsel his community, which he knows is at high risk for the virus, to take precautions, like staying home and wearing masks, "rather than just volunteering to be the guinea pigs."

Womack, who is also an academic adviser in the social work department at the University of Michigan-Flint, said his experience during the water crisis has significantly informed his approach to the vaccines.

"There was this push for everybody to use the water from the city," both during the crisis and after the city switched to a cleaner water source and started distributing filters and replacing corroded pipes, Womack said. "There was a push from local leaders to say, 'Hey, in order for us to move beyond this, we have to get people to trust the city, to trust the water.' But trust is a relationship. It's not given."

Water testing now shows Flint’s water is safe to drink, but Womack and most people he knows still drink bottled water, he said.

Eventually, Womack said, he'll probably come around to the vaccines.

But for now, he said, "let's just put some time on it.'"

Sarah Bailey at a rally drawing attention to the Flint water crisis.
Sarah Bailey at a rally drawing attention to the Flint water crisis.Nick Manes / Michigan Advance

Bailey, who said the community is "emotionally spent" after months of death, economic despair and social isolation, said she plans to be vaccinated and to share pictures on every social media channel. One of the organizations she works with drafted a vaccine information pamphlet that it is distributing around Flint.

But she has no plans to tell her friends and neighbors what to do.

"Everybody has to make up their own mind," she said. "It's going to take people that they trust in the community, that they see take the vaccine themselves and see them be OK, and then they'll say, 'Well, if they took it, and they're OK, maybe I should, too.'"