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Cherokee Nation Begins Vaccinating Its Health Care Workers

Dr. Kathryn Hughes, Director of Emergency Services for the Cherokee Nation, was one of the first people to get the coronavirus vaccine on Tuesday.

Cherokee Nation has started vaccinating health care workers at their tribal health complex in Tahlequah, Okla.

Dr. Kathryn Hughes, the director of emergency services for the Cherokee Nation, was one of the first health care workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday morning

"I'm desperate to stop the spread of this terrible virus," Hughes said. "And if I can do my part, I wanted to do it as soon as possible."

The first doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine arrived in Oklahoma on Monday morning, and the state has started the first of four phases in the state’s vaccination plan, which covers frontline health workers and nursing home staff and residents.

"It's important to stop the spread, so that our patients-especially our elders aren't getting infected with this virus," said Hughes after getting the vaccine. She stressed the fact that medical professionals like her don't know the long term effects of the virus.

Brian Hail, Deputy Executive Director of External Operations for the Cherokee Nation said he was full of hope as frontline medical workers received their first doses of the vaccine. He said it was important it was important to protect people who are taking care of those getting sick with the virus-including elders.

The Cherokee Nation has lost a number of first language speakers from COVID-19. 

"Our mission is to continue the story of the Cherokee people," said Hail. 

"To do that, we want to protect our language, we want to protect our culture. So, the first thing is we want to take care of the people who are taking care of patients."

Cherokee Nation plans to vaccinate health care workers, first language speakers and Cherokee National treasures — those whose knowledge of Cherokee culture is considered priceless in this first phase.

Indian Health Service clinics around the state received their first shipment of the vaccine on Tuesday and will begin the process of administering the first shots.

The Cherokee Nation received 975 doses of the vaccine on Monday. Overall, Indian Health Service is set to receive more than 60,000 doses of the vaccine-that number includes both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine-once it gets approval from the FDA.

"The vaccine is going to change the landscape of how we deal with this virus, and that begins today," said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. 

Hoskin Jr. understands that some may feel skeptical about the safety of the vaccine, but he says the science and the research done are sound. He said even the Cherokee Nation's own health team evaluated the efficacy and safety of the vaccine. 

Cherokee Nation has received recognition from health experts for going above and beyond what the state of Oklahoma is doing to control the spread of the virus. In late September, Hoskin Jr. called for a statewide mask mandate. Cherokee Nation has also made widespread testing available for employees, citizens and non-tribal citizens.

Jodi Tricinella is a Cherokee citizen and the COVID-19 vaccine coordinator for Claremore Indian Hospital. They got a tray of the vaccine on Tuesday-which amounts to 975 doses. 

"We're excited that we got it and that we could start vaccinating our frontline healthcare workers since that is a priority right now," saidTricinella.

Alonna Adair, also a Cherokee citizen and the Chief Nurse Executive for Claremore Indian Hospital says she felt like she was part of history 

"It feels like the best Christmas gift to start returning to some normalcy for our country," said Adiar.

As of Tuesday, December 15th the Cherokee Nation has had 7,614 positive cases of COVID-19 and 53 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.

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Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
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