COVID-19 compounds Flint's woes after contaminated water crisis

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Flint — Cynthia Shepard has experienced much sorrow in her life, from losing her husband in a car accident to living for decades with multiple sclerosis to enduring the lead-contaminated-water crisis that made national headlines. 

Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken 99 lives here and 33 others in Flint Township, a few of whom Shepard knew personally. 

Floyd Macklin, left, and Cory Anderson grab cases of bottled water for clients at Greater Holy Temple in Flint on Thursday

Six years after Flint changed its water source and endured contaminated water and Legionnaires' disease outbreaks, COVID-19 is yet another albatross for an impoverished community that distrusts the government and continues to fear drink the city's water.

"First, it was the water crisis and now the pandemic ... it's just tough," said Shepherd, a 55-year-old retiree and mother, as she sat in a church parking lot with volunteers putting for bottled water, fruit and vegetables in each car. "I've known a few people who have died, and it's scary. Every time I go out, I have to have a mask on."

Cynthia Shepard of Flint speaks about Flint water crisis and the impact of Covid-19  as she picks up cases of bottled water at the Greater Holy Temple parking lot in Flint on Thursday, May 7, 2020.

It's common to find people in Flint who know of someone who died from the virus, and the fear of getting infected is palpable. Masks are omnipresent around Michigan's seventh-largest city. For weeks, the streets had been clear with people staying home.

Zetan Evans, 82, lived through the scare of the water crisis and now the pain of the coronavirus pandemic. Her 60-year-old daughter, Yana Evans, died in April of COVID-19 after spending a few weeks on a ventilator. Now she cares for her grandson who cannot communicate due to an illness.

"This should not have happened. The two main sources of our existence in this world are air and water. And they are messing with both of them," Evans said. "You've got to wear a mask when you go out. You've got to drink bottled water all the time. This is ridiculous."

Flint made national news in early May when a security guard was gunned down at a Family Dollar store over a dispute about a patron not wearing a mask as was required to protect from coronavirus.

Volunteer Arthur Woodson, R.L. Community Outreach Center, carries cases of water at the Greater Holy Temple as the mobile food pantry distribution loaded vehicles for resident in need in Flint.

Residents are grappling with the pandemic and government restrictions that put many out of work in the city with the second-highest poverty rate in America among cities with 65,000 or more residents. 

And death has come to well-known pastors, union leaders and activists by COVID-19.

"These are people who we know," Flint City Councilman Eric Mays said. "This is two emergencies. The first water emergency was something you could touch, see, feel. It was more controllable. ... This emergency is dealing with something you can't really touch, see or feel. It's like invisible. This makes me say this is more tragic to the community in which I serve in some instances than deaths I've seen in the water crisis."

Flint has been through too much, especially for a city that had its share of woes before 2014, said Todd Flood, a Royal Oak lawyer and the one-time special prosecutor under former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette who pursued criminal charges related to the water crisis.

Volunteer Sherlynn Chapple carries milk for clients lined up at the Greater Holy Temple parking lot where the mobile food pantry loaded vehicles with produce, water and milk in Flint on Thursday, May 7, 2020.

"Not only are they struggling with the lack of trust in government, this pandemic has kicked them when they've been down," said Flood, who grew close to many in the community during his time as a special prosecutor. "There are a lot of fighters in Flint and a lot of resilient people. I don't know if anyone can have an understanding of what it's like to walk through the shoes for one mile of the citizens of Flint."

The lead exposure and Legionnaires' outbreaks might well have contributed to the coronavirus deaths in Flint by putting residents at higher risk of complications, the City Council member contended.

"We believe the water crisis left folks with some underlying (health) issues," Mays said. "We do some reflection of what we see on CNN and around the country, that it has hit some of the black and Hispanic areas a little heavier."

According to experts, asthma, diabetes and hypertension are among underlying conditions believed to negatively impact COVID-19 patients.

Dozens of cars arrive with their trunks and hatchbacks open as volunteers prepare to load cases of bottled water, milk and produce at the Greater Holy Temple parking lot in Flint on Thursday, May 7, 2020.

Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint pediatrician and public health advocate who helped expose the impact of Flint's lead-contaminated water on children, detailed the struggles a community like Flint has with the coronavirus pandemic. Although she has recently recovered from the virus, she said she personally has known several people who have died from COVID-19. 

"Here is a city that is trying to recover from the last public health crisis," Hanna-Attisha said. "And then this disproportionate public health crisis happened on top of it. So it's unfair. It's maddening that here is a city that is once again trying to deal with another preventable crisis."

Sandra Smith Jones, executive director, R.L. Community Outreach Center, directs clients at the Greater Holy Temple where the mobile food pantry .

The lessons of Flint, she said, "are not new" because "the lessons of the Flint water crisis are the exact same lessons of this global pandemic. And we have been trying to get the nation to learn from our lessons in Flint."

The pediatrician has argued the lessons of Flint include that health issues can become magnified if there is a belief that the government can't solve problems or put a price tag on certain things, such as adequate health care. 

Hanna-Attisha pointed out Genesee County, where Flint is located, has more deaths than 16 states, including West Virginia's 75. The county had 252 as of Tuesday.

"That is crazy that one community can have more deaths than West Virginia," she said.

Allan McArthur, 75, of Flint, speaks about Flint water crisis and the impact of Covid-19 on the city as he picks up cases of bottled water at the Greater Holy Temple parking lot in Flint on Thursday, May 7, 2020.

Allan McArthur, 75, of Flint was in line in May at a local church to get water and food. His wife Lillian, 74, was at home, quarantining herself from the virus because she has longstanding heart issues.

"I get water, and we go to the bunkers," said McArthur, a retired information technology specialist.

Life is tough under the coronavirus conditions, he said, especially since Flint residents need to work to make ends meet. 

McArthur said he has not known of anyone in Flint who has died from COVID-19, but is he worried about himself and his wife: "Well, yeah, it can kill you."

Volunteer Cory Anderson carries cases of bottled water for clients at the Greater Holy Temple in Flint on Thursday, May 7, 2020.

Conditions have "been real tough" because of the pandemic, agreed Daniel Knight, 71, of Flint, who once worked at the General Motors plant here. "We're trying to get over with the water crisis, which was definitely an unfair act to us," he said

Knight is fearful of the coronavirus because he has diabetes and knows a few people who have passed away.

"I think Flint is more so bothered then anywhere else because we're trying to recover from the water," he said. "We could be staying home being safe, but instead we're out trying to get water."

Kay Lewis, water coordinator, grabs bags of oranges for clients at Greater Holy Temple in Flint on Thursday, May 7, 2020.

Meanwhile, Shepard said she has had multiple sclerosis flareups and knows if she gets the virus, she will be in trouble. Her 17-year-old daughter, who refuses to wear a mask, is her only close relative, she said.

"So I have really no one to depend on," Shepard said.

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