‘My city is on fire’: pandemic wreaks renewed havoc in Flint after water crisis

Nearly a dozen people sit in on a Zoom call on a Wednesday afternoon for what they call a “publications” meeting – one similar to many others held daily in Flint, Michigan, as community partners collaborate for the sake of public health.

In essence, it’s a meeting bringing organizations together to help strategize on how to get the word out about Covid-19 vaccinations.

Like the rest of Michigan, Flint is seeing steep increases in Covid-19 numbers.

“My city is on fire. Covid-19 is on fire,” said Debra Furr-Holden, director of the Flint Center for Health Equity Solutions (FCHES) and associate dean for public health integration at Michigan State University, as she talks about new efforts to reduce Covid numbers.

Flint gained unwanted global attention for its water after it was discovered that nearly 100,000 residents were potentially exposed to lead-tainted water while under control of the state of Michigan in 2014 when the city connected to the Flint River for its primary water source.

The move was to cut costs but proved to be a health disaster as Flint residents struggled with various issues, including rashes, hair loss and deaths, all pointing back to mishandling of the water. It took more than a year for health officials to discover that the city had been exposed to poisoned water after elevated blood lead levels were found in children in 2015.

Now the coronavirus pandemic is wreaking renewed havoc in the city as a wave of new infections struck Michigan just as much of the rest of the country seemed to be recovering. Numbers of positive cases in Flint are steadily increasing and the pandemic has not made it easy to get information out to a community struggling with various communication gaps. It is a fresh crisis, but it is also one that multiple local activists and community leaders are seeking to combat.

According to reports from the Flint Center for Health Equity Solutions, cases in Flint have doubled from an average of 150 a day in the local county to 300. Genesee county now has the third-highest number of new cases in the nation, testing at a positivity rate of 20.9%.

The latest wave of cases is a blow to a city that only four months ago touted being able to reduce disparities among the Black community. Now that work may have been undermined by increased numbers, lax enforcement of Covid-19 safety practices, a false sense of security and lack of capacity, forcing community leaders to rethink strategies to reduce misinformation and barriers regarding Covid-19 vaccinations.

In January, 10% of the racial data related to cases was missing in Genesee county. In March, 36% were missing. Now that number is closer to 50%t, Furr-Holden said.

“When we had gotten it down to less than 10% missing data, we could say with confidence … that we had closed the racial disparity gap,” Furr-Holden said. “With the unnecessary and unacceptable high degree of missing data, we’ve now lost our ability to speak to disparities of Covid cases and death. We can only estimate with the data we do have, but more than half of it is missing race.”

Despite the setback, community members are working to be proactive as they prepare for the worst-case scenario, including having a disproportionate number of the population affected by Covid-19. Ensuring a wide vaccination rollout is held up as key.

According to FCHES, 35.2% of Genesee county residents where Flint resides have been vaccinated as of 4 April. Genesee county has a population of more than 400,000 people.

Furr-Holden said she was pushing for door-to-door vaccination programs.

“We need to be vaccinating people on their front doorsteps,” Furr-Holden said. “It’s a moonshot, but it’s the moonshot we need to be shooting for.”

“It literally takes three minutes to vaccinate somebody. You ask a few questions, you check a few boxes, someone needs to be with them for 15 minutes and then it’s on to the next person,” Furr-Holden said. “Someone could vaccinate at least two people per hour going door-to-door. This is what we need for people who face challenges with making it to vaccination sites. We have a community of volunteers begging ‘put me in the game coach’.”

Collaboration has become commonplace for Flint. Most agencies have worked together for nearly seven years as they worked through the city’s ongoing water crisis after discovering nearly 100,000 residents were potentially exposed to lead-tainted water stemming back from 2014.

“The infrastructure is already in place because of the water crisis,” said Kirk Smith, CEO and president of the Greater Flint Health Coalition (GFHC). “We have worked in partnership for years.” GFHC has worked in collaboration with community partners for health equity for nearly 25 years.

Early on, city officials moved to reconnect water for residents to encourage hand washing, local churches, community centers and medical facilities have served as testing sites and local leaders and activists have worked to volunteer helping get information about Covid-19. Those agencies are still working together but now also serving as vaccination sites.

In addition, the county’s Mass Transportation Authority has joined the collaboration by offering free rides to vaccination sites.

“We know from our experiences with the water crisis that whatever we do, we all have to do our part together,” said Smith. “It’s ever-changing. There are more and more opportunities to get the vaccine. We encourage people who have not to do so.”

Smith said GFHC was working on mapping vaccine locations for the community and also creating one point of access so residents can get vaccination information and make appointments.

“Ultimately removing any barriers that people face when trying to get a vaccine,” Smith said.

Officials say education and transportation are two barriers that Flint-area residents face.

“MTA has really done a good job partnering with the philanthropic community to help remove the transportation barrier,” Smith said. “That was a big thing.”

While early initiatives proved to work, including identifying barriers to help people who gain access to testing, Smith said those barriers could change daily.

The age of the average person with Covid-19 is dropping. The Flint area is seeing an increase in people age 19 and under testing positive, which isn’t helping with the spread. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, confirmed Covid cases are increasing in ages 18 to 54.

In January, the Michigan governor, Gretchen Whitmer, appointed Dondre Young to the Bipartisan Protect Michigan Commission where he along with three other Flint-area leaders are working together to work on strategies to decrease Covid numbers statewide.

“My vaccination efforts are statewide, but I’m a Flintstone,” said Young. “I’m working with a group of Flint natives that was formed last year at the beginning of the pandemic called the Flint Millennial Movement.” The group worked to educate young people in the community about Covid-19 and encourage them to get vaccinated. This includes holding roundtable discussions on various platforms like Facebook.

Young said there were some discussions in deploying mobile units for vaccinations that were used to distribute resources during the Flint water crisis.

“We have to get the vaccination to the community,” Young said. “Transportation is a huge barrier.”

Young also said one of the main concerns he hears is “vaccine manufacturers didn’t spend enough time testing the efficacy of the vaccines”. But he tries to reassure them in ways that will encourage take-up.

“This is a valid concern,” Young said. “In a pandemic, no steps were skipped. They simply were able to cut some of the red tape that was put in place. A compromise was made in Congress. The vaccine went through the same process as any other medication.”

Young says people need to do research and not be afraid to ask questions.

“At this point, everyone knows someone that has received one of the three Covid-19 vaccines. Don’t sit in an idle mind state of I wonder. Ask questions.”

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