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Coronavirus pandemic threatens Flint, Michigan, with 2nd major health crisis

One of the easiest ways to reduce the spread of coronavirus is handwashing. But in some places, such as Flint, Michigan, that simple task can be difficult to accomplish. Some residents of the largely poor city lack clean running water due to the 2014 water contamination crisis. John Yang talks to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who helped expose that emergency, about how the pandemic is hitting the city.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of the best ways to prevent spreading coronavirus is handwashing.

    But, in some places, like Flint, Michigan, that is not a simple task.

    Flint, which is majority African-American and largely poor, is still reeling from the 2014 water contamination crisis, and now it's grappling with a new public health emergency.

    John Yang is back, speaking with the doctor who helped to expose the water crisis about how this pandemic is hitting the city.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, in Flint, Michigan, the coronavirus pandemic isn't the only health problem the folks there are dealing with right now. It comes on top of the ongoing issue of elevated lead levels in the drinking water, a problem that marked its sixth anniversary recently.

    Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha was one of the earliest to sound the alarm about the water problem. She joins us by Skype from her home.

    Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, thank you so much for joining us.

    And I should note, one reason why you are at home and not seeing patients right now is that you have — you have recovered from coronavirus. How are you feeling now?

  • Mona Hanna-Attisha:

    Yes.

    Knock on wood, I am feeling so much better. I still can't taste or smell, but the scary respiratory cough, shortness of breath things are all gone.

  • John Yang:

    I was just looking at these statistics at the Genesee Health Department's Web site. They say that 40 percent of the cases in Genesee County, which is where Flint is, are in the city of Flint, even though Flint accounts for only about 25 percent of the population.

    Why do you think that is? And do you think it could have something to do with the water crisis?

  • Mona Hanna-Attisha:

    That's really being seen throughout the country in terms of the disparities of who is getting most impacted by this crisis.

    We are also seeing very much in Detroit. Michigan's the kind of — one of the hardest-hit states in this pandemic. Outside of the Detroit are, it's Genesee County that has seen a significant number of cases and deaths, including our hospital security guard and many of our loved ones that we work with on a daily basis.

    So, why is this happening? Why are we seeing these disparities? And, absolutely, we cannot rule out the water crisis in Flint and also in Detroit. Many families, and up to 5,000 families in Flint could not even wash their hands. They did not have running water to wash their hands.

    And, I mean, what is the most important thing to do to kill the virus right now? Look, we can actually kill the virus with soap and water. But we can't do that in many places, including in Flint.

  • John Yang:

    When we were in Flint, we met a young boy who had had — developed rashes and blisters from being bathed in the water when he was a very young at the beginning of this water crisis.

    He's afraid of the water. He doesn't want to deal with the water. How do you deal with that in a place where you don't trust what's coming out of the tap, and yet people are being told to wash their hands?

  • Mona Hanna-Attisha:

    Yes. It's very difficult.

    We are just beginning to recover from our last public health crisis. And then this is an added public health crisis that is straining very limited resources and exacerbating preexisting chronic disparities.

    We have, fortunately, over the last few years, in our recovery from the water crisis, have been able to build some of the public health infrastructure to support families.

    For example, the Flint Registry, supported by the CDC, funded by Congress, is exactly what we need right now. And it helps families get connected to nutrition, education, water, all these different — all these important things that we need right now.

    For example, just this week, the Flint Registry connected a family who did not have running water to the services in the city that now can get them back connected.

    So, in some respects, the hard work that we have been doing in our recovery the last few years, the building of that disinvested public health infrastructure, has enabled us to more quickly respond to this crisis and further support families.

    However, that infrastructure, just like that public health infrastructure throughout our nation, needs more support and needs more funding. And, for example, that Flint Registry, the funding without congressional action, is set to expire in a year.

  • John Yang:

    Are there other ways that the water crisis is sort of making the pandemic more complicated in Flint?

  • Mona Hanna-Attisha:

    That's actually what keeps me up at night.

    So, our previous public health crisis, the flood crisis, was an exposure of a neurotoxin on top of a population that had a lot of risk factors for health and development.

    So, we potentially have a population of children who will have long-term health and education deficits. And now we have this pandemic, which creates significant gaps in education and nutrition and health care.

    Our kids can't go to high-quality child care anymore. They can't participate in literacy services. The home visiting programs, all these things that we have put into place to buffer, to mitigate the impact of the water crisis with the lead exposure are gone right now.

    Another thing that we have to recognize with this pandemic is the mental health issues that are — that are happening. People, especially in low-income areas, they're stressed, just like we're all stressed. They're anxious. They don't have the luxury of, for example, staying at home in big, spacious homes and doing remote work and getting paid.

    They're on the front lines. They are delivering our mail. They are working in our grocery stores. They are driving our buses. They are keeping America running.

  • John Yang:

    When we were in Flint last year, we found a lot of people who continued distrust of the government.

    And now there's concerns about the way the leadership is handling the coronavirus pandemic. How is that affecting people?

  • Mona Hanna-Attisha:

    There's been significant loss in trust of every level of government because of the betrayal from this water crisis.

    They were essentially, you know, lied to by people whose job was to keep them safe and make sure that their water was safe to drink. That wasn't new lost trust. You know, it was — it had really been built on decades of lost trust, because Flint, as a city, just like many of our urban centers, many of our post-manufacturing communities, had suffered from disinvestment and neglect and racism for quite some time.

    And then our water crisis happened, and now we are in the midst of this other pandemic where our leaders also failed us.

  • John Yang:

    Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha from outside Flint, Michigan, thank you very much.

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