Tribal nations were one of the early success stories in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. They’re showing no signs of letting up.
The federal Indian Health Service—the agency that’s supplying vaccines to tribal health providers and through its own clinics—has now administered 1,027,727 vaccine doses, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While most states floundered early in their vaccine distribution, tribes administered their doses quickly, prioritizing elders with culturally important knowledge. They used call centers and existing outreach programs to contact their members. And they imbued the rollout with a deep sense of urgency—COVID-19 has killed Native Americans at a higher rate than any other group.
The Navajo Nation, once among the hardest-hit areas in the country, recently went 24 hours without a new case, according to The New York Times. The tribe has vaccinated more than half of its residents, a higher rate than any state.
Many states with high vaccination rates—including Alaska, New Mexico, North Dakota and South Dakota—are also among those with the largest percentage of Native residents, attesting to tribes’ role in bolstering the vaccine rollout.
Some tribes have vaccinated their members so quickly that they’ve turned their efforts to helping their neighbors. Players on the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers received doses from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, a nation whose reservation is located in northwest Oregon. The tribe began offering excess doses to the general public in February, Willamette Week reported.
In southwest Washington, the Chehalis Tribe has begun providing some of its vaccine supply to community organizations after vaccinating all of its members. In February, the tribe vaccinated staff members of the nearby Oakville and Rochester school districts, The Chronicle reported.
And in Oklahoma, several tribal communities have begun offering free vaccinations to all state residents.
“We’re running out of people to vaccinate,” Cherokee Nation’s Brian Hail told The New York Times.
The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota has removed checkpoints at the entrances to its reservation, citing declining COVID-19 case counts. The tribe is reassigning some of the workers who staffed the checkpoints to help with the vaccine rollout, the Associated Press reported, and it’s now offering vaccines to all tribal and nontribal members 18 and older.
The federal vaccine distribution to tribes is driven by the U.S. government’s legal trust responsibility to provide health care to tribal citizens. In the United States, 574 tribes are federally recognized, and many of them signed treaties under which they were promised health services in exchange for ceding their land.
But not all tribes have benefited from the Indian Health Service vaccine rollout. Some 245 tribes lack federal recognition, leaving them without the same health care rights. Some of those tribes, such as the Chinook Indian Nation in the Pacific Northwest, have not been prioritized for vaccines. Chinook leaders have relied on nearby tribes, including the Grande Ronde, to vaccinate their elders, High Country News reported.
Meanwhile, many Native Americans live in cities, far from the successful vaccination programs on tribal reservations. Some cities are served by Urban Indian Organizations, but many small clinics lack the storage and staffing to administer vaccines, Law 360 reported. Urban health centers do not receive a proportional amount of Indian Health Service funding.