Flint, MI — Flint resident Ladel Lewis said she caught COVID-19 twice.
The first time was in February before testing was widely available. After attending a party, she lost her sense of smell and taste. She couldn’t breathe. She felt like someone was “dropkicking” her in the back of her legs.
The second time was in July. Lewis was tested at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. Three weeks later her results came back positive.
But despite suffering from COVID-19 symptoms twice, Lewis said she won’t be getting the vaccine—at least not at first.
“As a member of the African American community…we are really hit hard, we are disproportionately affected by [the virus]. But at the same time, we’re looking at history, how we’ve been medical guinea pigs for a lot of things,” Lewis said.
While the vaccine likely won’t be available to the general public until next year, on Dec. 10, a panel of medical experts recommended the Federal Drug Administration officially authorize Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, and a mass vaccination campaign has begun.
As the first round of immunizations will soon roll out, Flint residents, and the rest of the world, are already asking themselves the question: “Will I get vaccinated?”
Flint Beat wanted to find out.
Through an informal Facebook survey, we asked Flintstones if they trusted the COVID-19 vaccine and if they’d be willing to get the shot. Over 230 people commented with their opinions. And while some were split on the matter, the majority echoed Lewis’ sentiments: “Hell no.”
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Mistrust of Medicine
More than half of Flint residents are Black. And though Flint’s population is roughly 23% of Genesee County’s total population, the City of Flint has the highest number of individual cases than any city or township in the county, amounting to 2,887 out of 15,966 total cases.
“Although we are disproportionately affected, I don’t want to be in a vulnerable state to where we are the guinea pigs to see if this medicine is working,” Lewis said.
Executive Deputy Director of the Community Based Organization Partners and Faculty Member at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine Dr. Kent Key said it’s normal and “common sense” that minorities have an inherent distrust of vaccinations and of the medical community in general.
“What is critical to understanding why Black and Brown communities are somewhat resistant to the idea of a government or governmental sanctioned vaccination is due to cultural pathology. There are so many examples that the U.S. government utilized unethical practices and predominantly targeted minority and marginalized communities or populations for those experiments,” Key said.
The most infamous of these experiments was the Tuskegee Study in 1932. At the time, scientists and medical authorities held damaging pseudoscientific ideas about sexual behavior in Black people. It was believed they had under-developed brains but over-developed genitals, characterizing them as an immoral race with insatiable sex drives.
This line of thinking fueled the study as researchers believed syphilis, a bacterial infection spread through sexual contact, occurred more frequently in Black males.
Their aim was to “observe the natural history of untreated syphilis” in Black populations. The U.S. Public Health Service recruited 600 Black men in Macon County Alabama, where it was estimated 35% of the population was infected.
Researchers lied to recruits and told them they would receive free medical treatment for “bad blood” – except they didn’t. Instead, researchers performed fake tests and physical exams to trick participants into thinking their syphilis was being cured.
And researchers went to great lengths to ensure the participants didn’t get treatment by giving doctors in Macon County a list of names and telling them not to treat them.
The experiment continued until 1972. By this time, most of the test subjects had died.
The Tuskegee Study had long-lasting effects on the health of Black males and Black culture.
“Your cultural pathology is transferred from culture to culture, from generation to generation,” Key said, adding he remembers learning at an early age that if he was sick to try home remedies before going to the doctor.
“The fear is that they’re going to use you like a guinea pig. That is just something that you know, he said.”
Mark Baldwin, who is part Native American, a community that has also been subject to unethical medical experiments, said he and his family will not take the vaccine.
“My sister died at 43. My mother died at 49. And this is due to complications that we feel are related to vaccines,” Baldwin said, adding that doctors had assured them the vaccines were safe.
The Aftermath of Water Crisis
Some Flint residents have lost trust in government-administered vaccines not only due historical, inhumane medical practices but because they’ve been poisoned in recent years.
“Hmmmm, I drank the poison water of Flint, Michigan and I’m already at risk so why would I stick a needle in my arm?” Mickey McGinnis Sr. wrote on Facebook.
Key said when he would go fishing in the Flint River as a child, he knew he could never eat what he caught or drink the water.
“The world found out in 2014-2016, but we knew what was happening way before then. And so, there you have another modern-day example of the government allowing something unethical to happen to a particular group of people,” he said.
Others said they might get the vaccine after a bit of time so long as lawmakers and other government officials are willing to do so.
Former Presidents Barack Obama, George Bush, and Bill Clinton pledged last week to go on live T.V. and take the vaccine. But after watching Obama drink Flint’s water in 2016, Lewis said she can’t trust it.
“[Obama] had the audacity to come to Flint, take a sip of that water, and deem it to be okay. And from that point forward, the world turned their back on Flint because Barack Obama said that the water was fine,” Lewis said.
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Lack of Information
An article by the New York Times stated that public health advocates are asking regulators to be “transparent about potential safety issues and to closely track the vaccine once it becomes available.” This kind of transparency is necessary to reassure Black and Native American people who have historically been exploited and abused by medical professionals.
However, some Flint residents said they feel it’s still too early to trust any information about the vaccination.
“I don’t like how it was rushed. Vaccines take the time to develop for a reason. You can have allergic reactions, manufacturing errors (like accidental live virus injection, which has happened even when we take our time), and long term effects that can show up,” Marc Loiselle commented on Facebook.
Lesa Quade, a Flint resident and former radio host, said those who refuse to wear masks should be the first to line up for the vaccine.
“I feel it hasn’t been studied and enough people haven’t taken it. They have no idea what it will do to you now and later. They’re just rushing through it. So, I think it’s all political,” Quade said.
In Pfizer’s clinical trials, over 42,000 people received the two doses of the vaccine. The trials proved the vaccine to be 95% effective with no severe side effects.
But on Wednesday, two British healthcare workers with severe allergies had “adverse reactions” to the vaccine. UK regulators advised those with severe allergies not to get the vaccine.
“I’m going to sit back and count how many drop dead because I’m not going be in the first batch, I’ll tell you right now. I’m going to be kicking and screaming—I’m going to be like Trump who don’t want to leave the White House,” Quade said.
When it comes to information about the vaccine, Key said he recommends consulting multiple trusted sources like the Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and the National Institute of Health.
“Everything on social media is not real and is not fact. Just because it popped up on a social media app or a newsfeed does not necessarily mean that it is factual information. Unfortunately, you have to take the self-accountability to research the information you find and try to justify it and verify it by several sources,” he said.
Some said they welcome a new vaccine.
“I’d campout like a Black Friday shopper for it,” Kim Ostrander wrote.
Others, like Tony Vu, owner of MaMung, a Vietnamese restaurant inside the Flint Farmer’s Market, said he’ll take the vaccine because he wants to be safe.
“Myself and my employees…we’re pretty much like frontliners. We’ve been working through the pandemic, shutdowns, everything. One of the constant looming fears is exposing ourselves and risking our health to go out and serve people…To this day, we deal with a lot of people who are disrespectful and don’t really show any concern for other people’s health. So, I think being able to have a vaccine just gives us an extra layer of protection and also peace of mind,” Vu said.
Once the vaccine is publicly available, the Genesee County Health Department plans to use six schools in the county to distribute it.
Overall, Key said he recommends immunization against the coronavirus.
“As a public health professional, I would definitely recommend the vaccination. I would recommend it because number one, outside of the historical context… this is affecting everybody in every country, every race. So, it does not necessarily have the same targeted feel, as some of the other historical experiences that have transpired,” he said, adding that he does understand the hesitancy in minority communities to not be the first to try it.
The GCHD will continue to update the community on the status of the vaccinations.