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Analysis: Why tribal health providers often outpace states in vaccine administration

3 years 5 months 1 week ago Tuesday, February 09 2021 Feb 9, 2021 February 09, 2021 8:59 AM February 09, 2021 in News
Source: CNN
An aerial shot of part of the Navajo Nation. Photo: ABC News/YouTube

Though the COVID-19 health crisis continues to have a tragic impact on indigenous communities across North America, some officials report success in administering COVID-19 vaccinations to a significant percentage of individuals in tribal communities.

According to CNN, vaccine hesitancy has been a public health challenge for many minority communities in the United States. Tribal health providers noted that many Native Americans who felt this way did so because of the federal government's history of unethical research and medical abuses committed against Native people.

However, a recent survey of 1,435 American Indians and Alaska Natives from the Urban Indian Health Institute found that 75% of participants were willing to get a COVID-19 vaccine, mostly due to a desire to protect their communities and preserve their cultures. 

This sense of responsibility implies that culturally relevant messaging is key to building vaccine acceptance among Native people, the report's authors wrote.

It's an approach that the Cherokee Nation says has worked for them.

The Cherokee Nation has administered over 17,000 vaccines as of February 8, according to the tribe. These vaccinations took place among the 141,000 Cherokee Nation citizens who live within the bounds of the tribe's reservation in northeastern Oklahoma, suggesting an impressive pace so far.

The community's "biggest confidence builder" in the vaccine has been its decision to put fluent Cherokee speakers at the front of the line, said Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.

According to CNN, Cherokee speakers were among the first groups eligible for the vaccine, as part of the tribe's effort to save its language from the existential threat of Covid-19. Only about 2,000 people could speak Cherokee fluently before the pandemic. The virus took the lives of more than 120.

By vaccinating the community's most revered and treasured citizens first, the Cherokee Nation signaled to others who may have been on the fence that it believed the treatment was safe.

"That's done something to create a sense of optimism among our people and also to boost the confidence of other Cherokees who see these very revered Cherokee elders, in many cases who are fluent speakers, getting the vaccines and celebrating it," he told CNN.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said that people were reluctant to get the vaccine early on, so he was inoculated on camera to help build confidence in the treatment. The tribe has also been answering questions Navajo people have over the radio and in twice-weekly held town halls that occasionally feature guest experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci.

A secondary critical aspect of the tribe's confidence-building efforts are Navajo doctors and health care professionals, who are able to speak to citizens in their own language and alleviate any concerns about its safety.

"Utilizing our way of life and teaching helps our Navajo people feel it's okay to take the shots," Nez said.

Nez says that nearly three out of four Navajo citizens are now interested in getting the vaccine. In response to this interest, the tribe has been holding mass vaccination events seven days a week.

According to CNN, as of February 8, nearly one in three people on the Navajo Nation have received at least one dose of the vaccine and 4.3% have been fully vaccinated -- a rate higher than most states. Nez describes the vaccination efforts as a story of resilience and perseverance, especially considering how hard Covid-19 hit the tribe.

Tribal health providers told CNN they're administering vaccines almost as soon as they receive shipments, which come either from the Indian Health Service or their state governments.

This means that their steady vaccination rates ultimately depend on whether the US can continue to provide vaccines at the speed and volume at which they need -- a challenge that has already slowed down efforts for counties and states.

That said, CNN notes that health officials have a reason for optimism as President Joe Biden's administration recently rolled out a series of measures aimed at ramping up vaccination efforts, which include purchasing 200 million more vaccine doses and increasing distribution to states by millions of doses.

If that turns out to be the case, tribal health providers say they intend to be ready.

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