Navajo Nation hospitals and clinics will receive a shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine early next week, health officials said during a video update Thursday.
Dr. Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer for the Navajo Area Indian Health Service, said the agency expects a shipment of 3,900 doses of the Pfizer vaccine on Monday.
The Food and Drug Administration approved widespread use of the Pfizer vaccine on Friday.
“The first shipment will go to Gallup Indian Medical Center, as they have the appropriate ultrafreeze technology necessary to keep the vaccine safe,” Christensen said.
On Tuesday, vaccines will be shipped to the Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock and the Chinle Comprehensive Health Care Facility in Arizona.
IHS staff will transport the vaccines from those facilities to Crownpoint, Kayenta, Fort Defiance, Tuba City, Winslow, Sage and Flagstaff.
Navajo hospitals and clinics in New Mexico and Arizona are working with the Indian Health Service to distribute vaccines.
“The Utah Navajo Health System … will be going through the state of Utah,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said.
The voluntary vaccine will be given using a prioritized system because of a limited initial number of doses.
The first group to receive the vaccine on the Navajo Nation will include health care workers, EMS staff, traditional practitioners, and all staff and patients in long-term nursing facilities.
Once that group has received shots, essential workers are next in line. This includes workers who help transport food and supplies, and provide electricity and water to reservation residents.
People who have high-risk medical conditions comprise the third group.
“We know they are at higher risk to get very ill from COVID, and we’d like to prevent that,” Christensen said. “Adults over 65 are also included.”
The general population on the reservation should expect to be eligible for a vaccine in early 2021.
The Navajo Area IHS will also receive an initial 7,800 doses of the vaccine from Moderna once that company has final approval.
The COVID-19 vaccine rollout comes as the reservation reports record-high case numbers and virus deaths. The Navajo Nation tallied 347 new COVID-19 cases and six deaths on Thursday night. It was the third-highest single-day case total for the reservation since the pandemic began.
Dr. Laura Hammitt, director of infectious disease prevention programs for the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, said both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses to be most effective against COVID-19.
“We know that COVID is surging right now, and our families and our communities are suffering,” Hammitt said. “But this vaccine offers hope, and it is a truly remarkable achievement.”
The Johns Hopkins team helped lead the Pfizer clinical trial on the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Nation Human Research Review Board approved the trial.
Johns Hopkins has also worked with the Navajo Nation on vaccine trials for meningitis, rotavirus and bacterial pneumonia.
Of the Pfizer COVID-19 trial’s 463 Native American participants, 163 were Navajo volunteers and 58 were White Mountain Apache. IHS providers on the Navajo Nation also participated in the trial.
The Pfizer trial results show that some participants experienced mild side effects after receiving the vaccine. “The most common side effects were pain where the shot was given, tiredness, muscle aches and headaches,” Hammitt said. “But all of these went away after a couple of days.”
More vaccine doses from Pfizer and Moderna are expected to arrive on the Navajo Nation in early January. The vaccine was found to be 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 after two doses.
The health officials encouraged Navajo residents to get the COVID-19 vaccine, even if they have already contracted the disease.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the Navajo Nation hard. The tribal land has a population of 173,000. Nearly 700 Navajo residents have died from the virus and more than 18,900 people have tested positive.
Dr. Michael Tutt, chief medical officer at Tséhootsooí Medical Center in Fort Defiance, Arizona, said the pandemic has exacerbated the health disparities on the reservation. About 30% of homes on the Navajo Nation do not have access to running water. Many residents live far from grocery stores and hospitals.
“I’ve seen grandfathers, grandmothers, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters perish in our ICUs because COVID has taken over their bodies,” Tutt said.
But Tutt said the Navajo people are resilient and the vaccine is a promising step to help end the pandemic.
“Make sure you wear your face mask, maintain distance and wash your hands,” he said, “and we will overcome this virus that has invaded our Navajo Nation.”