As COVID vaccine arrives, wary Black Georgians haunted by memory of 1950s federal mosquito experiment

SAVANNAH, Ga. – Black Americans are more hesitant than white Americans to take the COVID-19 vaccine.

The reasons for that hit close to home in Savannah, Georgia, where a classified military operation in the 1950s dropped hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes – mosquitoes that many believe were infected with disease – on Carver Village.

“They didn’t tell anybody, and it happened,” said Chatham County Commission Chairman Chester Ellis. “And so that leaves some apprehension, especially when you have residents of that area who’ve been there since the ’50s. And so my job as neighborhood president, and also as chairman of the County Commission, is to kind of calm the storm down to let them know that this vaccination is not like that.”

The Kaiser Family Foundation, which has been tracking attitudes about the vaccine for months, indicates 43% of Black adults in the U.S. are taking a “wait and see” approach to the vaccine, according to results of a poll completed Jan. 18. That compares to 26% of white adults in the same poll who say that when an FDA approved vaccine for COVID-19 is available to them for free, they would wait and see how it is working for other people.

Chatham County Chairman Chester Ellis received his first COVID-19 vaccine last week.

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Caution is a rational approach to centuries of structural racism, said Savannah resident and activist Natavia Sanders.

“This has been the only system of America that American descendants of slaves know, and therefore there are automatic cautions to survival,” Sanders said. It only makes sense for Blacks to question vaccines and studies, she said, after “countless times of being the study (subject) for things without their consent or knowledge.”

The infamous Tuskegee Study in which hundreds of Black men in Alabama went untreated for syphilis without their informed consent is just one injustice. In Savannah, a secret military program in the Cold War called Operation Big Buzz tested the viability of deploying mosquitoes as a delivery system of disease warfare by dropping thousands of mosquitoes on the Black neighborhood of Carver Village.

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What was the ‘Big Buzz’ experiment?

A United Press International newspaper article reported about it when the documents were declassified in 1980.

“Swarms of mosquitoes, the type notorious for transmitting yellow fever, were released in Georgia and Florida in the 1950s by the Army to see if the insects could be used as biological warfare weapons, documents show,” the Oct. 29, 1980 article states.

“However, none of the mosquitoes, specially bred by the Army Chemical Corps, was infected when released in Savannah, Ga., in 1956 and at Avon Park, Fla., in 1956 and 1958, according to declassified documents made available Tuesday,” the article read.

The declassified military document is available online. On each page a header of “Secret” is crossed out and instead stamped “Unclassified.”

A page of the declassified military document describing a mosquito experiment in Savannah.

“The Chemical Corps tested the practicality of employing Aedes aegypti mosquitoes to carry a (biological warfare) agent in several ways. In April – November 1956 the Corps ran trials in Savannah, Georgia, by releasing uninfected female mosquitoes in a residential area, and then, with co-operation of people in the neighborhood, estimating how many mosquitoes entered houses and bit people,” reads the document dated January 1960 and titled “Summary of Major Events and Problems, United States Army Chemical Corps.”

The document goes on to report another deployment of hundreds of thousands of mosquitoes at Avon Park Air Force Base in Florida, summing up the purpose of the experiment:

“And while these tests were made with uninfected mosquitoes, it is a fairly safe assumption that infected mosquitoes could be spread equally well.”

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But some Savannah residents, including Ellis, have their doubts about whether the test mosquitoes were infected. He and others investigated the issue while applying for historic designation for the neighborhood.

“And I know some people will say, ‘Well, there were mosquitoes, but they weren’t infected,'” he said. “But they were.”

Ellis recalled the infection as malaria. The Army Chemical Corps document indicates the research centered on yellow fever.

The secrecy around the project created mistrust in those who found out about it decades after the fact. Sanders wrote about “Big Buzz” in connection to a Change.org petition advocating against locating a city maintenance facility in Carver Village last year.

She’s too young to qualify for the vaccine yet, but is gathering information for when she is eligible.

“I’m reading everything and I am taking precautions,” she said. “I did talk to a friend recently who just recovered and was in the hospital fighting for his life. And I said, ‘Well, are you going to take the vaccine now?’ And he explained to me about the antibodies that he said he formed from already having the virus. And his opinion was even though he was eligible for it, he said he was going to wait for a little bit more of study being done. He wants to see (the vaccine) be in existence for at least a year.”

The downside of ‘wait and see’

The concern for many with taking a wait and see attitude is that the virus is not doing the same.

COVID-19 has hit the Black community disproportionately hard in Georgia and Chatham County, where Savannah is located.

While Black people make up 32.6% of the state’s population, they account for 36% of all COVID-19 deaths and make up the majority of deaths in those under age 60, according to an analysis of Georgia Department of Public Health data by The Augusta Chronicle earlier this month.

Those data hold true in Chatham County, too. As of Wednesday, 46% of the 298 COVID deaths in Chatham were Blacks and 51% whites. The county is 41% Black and 48% white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Of the 15 COVID-related deaths in Chatham residents age 45 or younger, all but two were in Blacks or Latinos.

Ellis feels this keenly.

“If you listen to all of the scientists’ and the doctors’ reports, statewide, nationwide and countywide, African Americans get infected more, at a higher rate,” he said. “African Americans are dying at a higher rate,” he said. “And so it behooves us to take the vaccine, especially since the new strains coming out, across the water now is more infectious, and is much easier to spread.”

He got vaccinated with news media present to be an example. And he reminds older Savannahians about the familiar and successful experience of getting the polio vaccine on a sugar cube at school.

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“We ought to have a higher rate of African Americans having the vaccine,” he said. “And there’s not an experiment on anybody, because they’ve given it to everyone. It’s just that we are more vulnerable.”

For now, he’s more concerned about access to the vaccine, both in terms of the doses arriving here per week and its availability to underserved communities.

“Folks in the deprived neighborhoods, they just don’t have the transportation to get to the health department,” he said. “So that becomes a challenge for them, more than remembering about Big Buzz.”

Jewell Black after receiving her COVID-19 vaccine during a St. Joseph's/Candler vaccine clinic.

That also seems to be the case with Chatham residents age 65 and older, who are jamming phone lines to get appointments. Typical is Jewelene Black, an African American who received the vaccine in late January through the St. Joseph’s/Candler vaccine clinic.

“All of my friends, we all had our arms out when they first started talking about the vaccine,” she said. “And I know some African Americans may be a little hesitant. But all my friends, we don’t have a problem taking it because there have been so many deaths, and especially African Americans, so I think it’s really important that we all get this fast.”

Getting to ‘yes’

The attitudes of younger county residents can be seen in health care workers, who were offered the vaccine first. Many didn’t take it, especially early on.

At St. Joseph’s/Candler hospital the administration has taken a respectful but persistent approach to the healthcare workers who initially declined the vaccine.

“If you weren’t taking it, we just wanted to know why,” said Paul Hinchey, president and CEO of St. Joseph’s/Candler. “So we could talk in a respectful manner, and see if we could get through it.”

With a work force that includes many women of childbearing age, how the vaccine could affect pregnancy and fertility were often the concern.

“It’s pregnancy, breastfeeding, fertility,” Hinchey said, listing common vaccine concerns.

The COVID vaccine wasn’t tested on pregnant women, so their concern makes sense to Dr. Stephen Thacker, associate chief medical officer and pediatric infectious disease specialist at Memorial Health. But he would counsel pregnant women toward vaccination because getting COVID late in pregnancy especially can be life threatening. The CDC includes pregnancy among the conditions that put people with COVID-19 at increased risk of developing severe illness, including an increased risk of death.

On Monday Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said that about 10,000 pregnant women in the U.S. have been vaccinated since the Food and Drug Administration authorized two vaccines, and so far there have been “no red flags.”

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At St. Joseph’s/Candler, a sense of youthful invulnerability was another factor for some staffers.

“Some people are young; they just don’t think I’ll need it,” Hinchey said.

St. Joseph’s/Candler didn’t track vaccine acceptance by race.

“Because we were going after everyone: white, Black, Hispanic, you know, it didn’t matter to us,” Hinchey said.

But talking to people individually changed their minds of about two-thirds of the staffers who initially declined the vaccine, Hinchey said.

“And I would say that’s probably a couple of hundred people. And that’s a lot. That’s great,” he said.

The increase will mean more than 70% of St. Joseph’s/Candler staff will be vaccinated, a minimum level epidemiologists cite as necessary to achieve herd immunity.

“This is going to take explanation in a roll-up-your-sleeves and talk to people way,” Hinchey said. “And if you do that, you’ll you’ll find that many people will say, ‘Hmm, okay, I’m going to give it a try.'”

Tammi Brown, who is the Chatham County nurse manager with the health department, said the concern she hears most frequently is the speed with which the vaccine was developed and approved for emergency use.

Tammi Brown, Nurse Manager for the Chatham County Health Dept., is given the Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19 at the Chatham County Health Department. Brown was among the first in Savannah, Georgia, to receive the vaccine.

She counters that worry with both the scientific and the personal.

First she encourages people to look at the data themselves, both on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices website.

“I encourage them to look at the data, which is what I did,” she said. “You know, to make sure that you’re making an informed decision.”

The data supports that it is a safe vaccine and is effective, Brown said.

“The vaccine is not live, so it can’t give you COVID,” she said.

Like Ellis, she also leads by example. Brown was among the first people in Georgia to receive the vaccine.

“And I let them know that I got it,” she said. “I encouraged my mother who’s 78 years old to get it. And so if I’m going to encourage it for myself and my mother, then obviously, it’s something that I trust.”

Follow reporter Mary Landers on Twitter: @MaryLandersSMN

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