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Hard-Hit Tribal Communities In Oklahoma Await First Doses Of The Coronavirus Vaccine

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The first doses of the coronavirus vaccine have arrived and are being administered in Oklahoma. The vaccine was developed in record time, causing some to be nervous about its efficacy and safety.

For Tribal citizens like Tanya Henry, a Muscogee (Creek) citizen and emergency room nurse for the tribe, there is much anticipation and anxiety.

Henry, who's been working for the Nation for 11 years, was inspired to become a nurse by her mother.

"So, I actually remember going with her to class and sitting outside of class and quizzing her on the road from where we lived to Connors (State College), where her college was," remembered Henry.

She eventually went to nursing school and worked at what was then known as Okmulgee Memorial Hospital after graduating.

When the first few cases of coronavirus were diagnosed in Oklahoma, she was scared. That's because Native Americans and Alaska Natives are being hit particularly hard by the virus. The CDC reports that the COVID-19 hospitalization rate for Native and Alaska Native people has now grown to 521 per 100,000 people.

Now, she and the rest of the nursing staff at Muscogee (Creek) Nation are anxiously waiting for the arrival of the vaccine, which could come as early as this week. All tribes in Oklahoma are expected to receive doses of the vaccine in the coming weeks. Healthcare workers like Henry will be among the first to receive it.

Henry said one reason Native people are getting hit harder by COVID-19 is that extended families live together, making it harder to control the spread of the virus. Native people live in tight-knit communities.

"I've seen a family that had a son, grandparent, aunts, uncles, they all live together. There was, you know, several multigenerational family in one in one household and all of them got it and all but one become severely ill," Henry said.

Henry herself contracted the virus after taking care of a patient who's oxygen level was dangerously low. She's grateful that she's recovered but still has some lingering effects from the virus.

In the last few weeks, flags at the Muscogee (Creek) Nation's government complex have been flying at half staff due to the number of people who've passed away. Many Tribes throughout the state have seen their citizens get sick and die. In the last month, citizens of the Kiowa Nation have lost many elders. The Cherokee Nation has  lost a number of first language speakers - which will be among the first groups of people to be vaccinated.

Jordan Kanuho, Vice President of the Pawnee Nation, said his tribe has seen a large COVID-19 spike in the last few weeks. During a recent meeting on emergency response to the virus, he received some staggering news.

"There was a 40 percent positive rate during that 7 day period, 40 percent positive rate of testing in that window," Kanuho said.

Lindy Bauer, a Cherokee citizen and the Chief Nursing officer for Muscogee (Creek) Nation's health service, said she is ready for the arrival of the vaccine.

"So I am definitely going to get it. And if I'm first in line, I would be excited to be first in line."

Bauer said the pandemic has taken a toll on the close knit community of nurses she works with. There are highs and lows.

"I think the lows, I would say are taking care of some of the grandparents of our nursing staff and hospital employees when their parents or grandparents have been in with COVID," she said.

Tribes in Oklahoma and Indian Health Service have been meeting for months to come up with a plan to distribute and administer the first doses.

Dr. Billy Beets, the Chief Medical Officer for Muscogee (Creek) Nation, said each tribe's distribution plan and the amount of vaccine they've requested varies.

"We worked very closely with the CDC and Operation Warp Speed," Beets said about the program the Trump administration put together to develop a vaccine.

The vaccine must be stored at negative 70 degrees below zero. Beets said the cold storage units are a little difficult to get right now. Some are on backorder until January. In the meantime, the vaccine will need to be kept on dry ice. Once it's thawed, the vaccine has only a few hours to be administered.

Beets said they and other Tribes have phases for who will get the vaccine first.

"They have a tiered system which basically covers health care providers as well as inpatients, and then the general citizenry and those that are considered, quote unquote, essential workers such as Light Horse and child services," Beets said.

Beets said they've been surveying how many people want the vaccine and he understands that people are concerned about the efficacy and safety of the vaccine - even though the first trials found it was about 95% effective.

Beets said it’s key to tell people about how safe and effective it is. And he hopes that once citizens in the community see health care workers get it, they will want to get it also.

"You really have to have a trust relationship with your community," he said.

He knows people feel reluctant because it is a new vaccine, developed in record time. But said people should have some faith in the system. He stresses the rigid protocols and standards the CDC and FDA follow. And this vaccine was developed in record time because of so many technological advancements, he said.

"Most of our major vaccines that you give to our children today, like MMR, those were developed back in the 70s," He said."We didn't have the computer technology we have today. We didn't have the artificial intelligence that we have today."

Kanuho also wants citizens to get the vaccine, but he understands if they refuse. He knows trust is an issue as well.

"Native Americans have a right to question the role of government in administering this vaccine just because of our history and what we've gone through," Kanuho explained.

The history he's referring to is the story of colonialism, disease and forced sterilization of thousands of Native American women in the 1970s through Indian Health Service.

As for Henry, she wants people to continue to wear their masks and be safe until the vaccine becomes available to the general public.

"Even if you might get mildly ill, there's other people that are losing multiple family members very close together. We have a nurse that lost her two grandmas in a week and a half apart from COVID,” Henry said.

Until vaccines actually become widely available, nurses like Henry and her coworker Bauer say they know it will be a long time until things get back to normal for their tight-knit community.

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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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