The effort to give COVID vaccines to Native Americans is being touted as a success story, with some tribes approaching and even surpassing the levels allowing them herd immunity for the coronavirus.
The Washington Post, exploring those efforts in a May 26 story, reported that the largest of the 574 Indian tribes, Navajo Nation, is about 70% fully vaccinated.
Meanwhile, the Post wrote, “By late March, Blackfeet Nation in Montana reported that 95% of its population had received its first vaccine dose. The Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation’s vaccine drive went so well that leaders offered surplus doses to a neighboring school district. The Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi, with 70% of its eligible population fully vaccinated, is nearing herd immunity.”
The impressive participation rates are attributable to two factors: “Tribal sovereignty, which gave tribes the flexibility to create their own methods of distributing the vaccine, and cultural values that prioritize elders and community.”
As far back as February 2021, when vaccines were first becoming available, Native American tribes have been invested in the inoculation process, in part because of losses that those communities have experienced due to COVID-19.
“When the vaccines came online in December, Rosebud Sioux President Rodney Bordeaux faced a tough choice,” NPR reported in its Feb. 19 story titled, “Why Native Americans Are Getting COVID-19 Vaccines Faster.”
“He could either go through the state of South Dakota to get them, which in his view hasn’t taken the virus seriously enough, or go with the perennially underfunded Indian Health Service; the tribe has a still pending lawsuit over past appalling conditions at the local hospital,” the story said.
The tribe went the IHS route, and that allowed the community to vaccinate at nearly double the rate that South Dakota was vaccinating its population.
That article noted that people 18 and older who wanted to get vaccines were getting access faster than jurisdictions where vaccines were initially limited to seniors. IHS’s centralized system, in Rosebud’s case, allowed for officials to reach out to a database of names for encouraging vaccinations, as well as organizing vaccination events.
That allowed the Rosebud community to register no new cases of COVID-19 much earlier than other parts of the state.
The Post article noted that the IHS worked with local leaders in distributing doses to reservations, even in remote and hard-to-reach locations.
“In Alaska, some vaccine doses were transported to rural communities by dog sled. In Navajo Nation, doses were driven by police escort ‘to every corner,’ Loretta Christensen, acting chief medical officer of the IHS, said. The idea, she said, was to ‘take your population and meet them where they are, wherever that is.’”
Though Native Americans have done well with the vaccination process, there are concerns among leaders about the population being shut out of the vaccine trial process. A May 25 Arizona Republic story determined that only two out of the 22 recognized tribes in the state (the Navajo Nation and the White Mountain Apache Tribe) were involved with COVID vaccine trials.
That reflects nationwide trends showing that Indigenous people were underrepresented in some COVID-19 vaccine trials.
According to Food and Drug Administration fact sheets for the vaccines that have so far received emergency use approval, 0.8% of participants in the Moderna trial and 0.6% of participants in the Pfizer trial were Native Americans, compared to 1.7% of the U.S. population identifying as Native American and Alaska Native. The article did note, however, that 9.5% of participants in the Johnson & Johnson trial were Native.
The Republic article also noted, “Indigenous people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. CDC data shows that Native Americans and Alaska Natives are 3.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 and almost twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white people.”
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