The first doses of the coronavirus vaccine are administered in Native American communities from the desert highlands of New Mexico to a coastal fishing tribe outside Seattle as the federal government and states rush to protect one of the most vulnerable populations in the United States.
The dual effort includes a massive logistical operation by the federal government’s Indian Health Service focused on vaccinating health workers at Sovereign Indigenous Nations clinics across the country and urban clinics serving Native Americans off-reserve.
The agency’s initial assignment of approximately 22,000 vaccine doses from German Pfizer and BioNTech arrived Monday at distribution centers in large portions of the Navajo Nation in Arizona and New Mexico and in urban locations like Phoenix, where hundreds of healthcare workers who they take care of Native Americans was vaccinated on December 17th.
But many tribes have chosen a separate route to receive vaccine deliveries through state health agencies that in some cases have more lasting and trusted relationships with tribal communities.
That system is spurring vaccinations for small tribes like the Acoma Pueblo, known for its “city of heaven” atop the mesa in the New Mexico desert.
Native Americans have been disproportionately ill and killed by the pandemic, despite extreme precautions that included curfews, roadblocks, universal testing, and the suspension of business in casinos and artisanal trading posts.
The Lummi Nation, a 5,000-member tribe living on a Washington state peninsula on the ocean, began vaccinating Thursday with 300 doses as it fights rising cases with a shelter order in place.
Tribal Elder James Scott, a facilities worker at the Reserve Community Clinic was the first to be vaccinated. Over the next few days, the gunshots will go to tribal police, food program workers, long-term care residents and health workers.
“We are so happy I can’t even describe it,” said Dr. Dakotah Lane, medical director of the Department of Public Health and a member of the Lummi Nation, as she lined up to get her shot.
Lummi Nation managed to keep the virus at bay with extensive testing and quarantined housing with food provided to those who tested positive, Lane said. There have been 133 cases of COVID-19 in the 52-square-kilometer reserve, with four hospitalizations and no deaths.
The tribe decided to obtain vaccines through the Indian health service to avoid competition with hospitals and nursing homes that would be vying for the state award. Mr. Lane called the decision “a calculated bet”.
The Indian Health Service said about 68,000 doses from Pfizer and one shot pending approval from drug maker Moderna should be enough to protect frontline health workers in 338 Native American-serving facilities in the U.S. are enrolled to work with the agency.
Pfizer vaccinations began Tuesday among health workers in Navajo and Hopi nation clinics in portions of Arizona and New Mexico, where 3,900 doses were escorted by police to clinics.
COVID-19 has roamed relentlessly among the multigenerational rural families of the Navajo nation. Navajo health officials have confirmed 20,000 coronavirus cases across the reservation and at least 727 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez in a statement called the vaccination effort “a blessing to all of our people, including doctors, nurses and many other health warriors.”
Three indigenous pueblos in New Mexico with a population of just 250 people are receiving doses of the vaccine through trusted relationships with state health officials.
In Acoma Pueblo, the first round of vaccinations on Wednesday went to healthcare workers, the elderly and frontline workers in food distribution and mental health visits to tribe members living in self-imposed isolation to protect themselves from infection.
The pueblo has funneled millions of dollars in federal aid towards its lockdown strategy to resist the COVID-19 pandemic – closing its casino, installing 24-hour roadblocks, and stepping up food deliveries and virus contact detection. among the residents in the house.
Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 16 virus-related deaths in the pueblo of about 3,000 residents, pueblo governor Brian Vallo said.
The infections occurred despite pandemic precautions, including near-universal pueblo virus tests and roadblocks to prevent tribe members from unauthorized travel and to keep visitors away.
Mr. Vallo has only left the pueblo once since March, to help deliver food to the tribe members living in Albuquerque.
Many tribes, federal and state health officials vie for a legacy of distrust among Native Americans related to routine frustrations with health services and historical events dating back to the arrival of deadly diseases brought by European settlers.
But the vaccine’s arrival in Acoma this week was greeted with gratitude, and the voluntary participation was enthusiastic, Mr. Vallo said.
“The community also realizes or understands that there are limited quantities and therefore it will take time to vaccinate everyone completely,” he said.
Kailee Fretland, a hospital pharmacist with the Indian Health Service at Red Lake Nation in Minnesota, helped plan distribution to Native Americans in the United States while keeping in mind the gaps in vaccination access during the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak.
“We went back and thought about what happened with H1N1,” he said in an interview on the Native America Calling program broadcast on public radio stations. “Tribes often didn’t have priority and we wanted to make sure that didn’t happen with COVID.”