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Tribal communities expand vaccine access

Second gentleman Douglas Emhoff watches Kylea Garcia get a COVID-19 vaccination at the Santo Domingo Health Center at Kewa Pueblo on March 17. Administering the vaccine is medical assistant Lsaida Bird. Indian Health Service officials said some tribes are expanding vaccinations to non-Native community members. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Many of the Southwest’s tribal communities that had disproportionately high COVID-19 infection rates at the onset of the pandemic are now seeing steady declines in new virus cases and deaths as more residents are vaccinated.

“We’ve seen our American Indian and Alaska Native communities lead the way on COVID vaccinations,” said Dr. Matthew Clark with the Indian Health Service COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force. “More than 940,000 vaccine doses have been administered across the Indian Health System since vaccines started arriving in mid-December, and we are on target to meet our March goal of administering at least 1 million doses.”

The IHS is delivering COVID-19 vaccines to more than 350 tribal health facilities, including 28 in the Albuquerque Area IHS and 23 in the Navajo Area IHS.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows the Albuquerque Area IHS has administered more than 83,000 vaccine doses. The Albuquerque Area extends into Colorado and Texas. The region serves pueblo, Apache, Navajo, Ute and urban Indigenous health care facilities.

Dr. Julianna Reece, chief medical officer for the Albuquerque Area IHS, said regional health leaders are contacting tribal members who may not yet be vaccinated.

“Many of our sites have opened up vaccination events to non-beneficiaries and those non-Native members that are associated with tribal communities, whether they are essential workers, family members or community members,” Reece said.

Some Albuquerque Area IHS sites have begun prioritizing 16- and 17-year-olds in an attempt to vaccinate students for a safer return to school.

Navajo Nation facilities are currently vaccinating anyone 16 years or older.

The Navajo Area IHS has administered more than 210,000 doses and nearly 89,000 Navajo residents are fully vaccinated.

The reservation, which once had the highest per-capita virus rate in the country, has reported fewer than 20 new cases each day for the past month.

Dr. Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer for the Navajo Area IHS, said reservation health care workers have a “hands-on approach” to addressing vaccine hesitancy.

“We use our public health nurses and our community health representatives from the Navajo Nation to go out to the communities and educate,” Christensen said. “They give people the schedule for the vaccines and give them the opportunity to ask questions.”

IHS officials also use radio and social media messages in Navajo and English to inform residents how the vaccine works to prevent serious COVID-19 disease.

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