Covid deaths have ravaged this Native American tribe. Today, 98% of eligible citizens are vaccinated.
The darkest days of the pandemic rolled into the fall, when ambulances were frequently called to transport tribal members of the Blackfeet Nation, whose lands border the snow-capped mountains of Glacier National Park in the north. from Montana to hospitals two hours away.
As around 10,000 people live on the tribal’s sprawling reservation, which is larger than the state of Delaware, the effects of the coronavirus have been acute: Tribal health officials have recorded more than 1,390 cases of Covid -19, including nearly 50 deaths.
But now the tribe is priding themselves on a remarkable feat in their fight against the virus: about 98% of the eligible reserve population has been fully vaccinated against the disease, compared to about 40% of Montana’s total population and 41%. of the U.S. population, according to the latest federal health data.
Vaccination efforts have been so successful that the tribe has offered surplus vaccines to other indigenous tribes in Canada and to non-tribal Canadians during vaccination campaigns that have drawn hundreds of people every day, and the tribe will provide vaccines at a two-day mobile vaccination site next week. at an entry point that connects Montana with the province of Alberta, said Robert DesRosier, director of emergency services for the Blackfeet Nation. Anyone – Canadians, other travelers and tourists who visit Glacier National Park – can roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated.
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“When the vaccines arrived, they were a breath of fresh air,” DesRosier said. “After all those dark days, when the pandemic was right in front of us and people were dying and you couldn’t even say goodbye, now we are doing everything we can to protect ourselves and everyone who asks. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. “
But getting to that point has been a challenge, DesRosier said, requiring buy-in from tribal members in the face of vaccine reluctance rooted in historic mistrust of the federal government and centuries of violence and abuse.
As Covid-19 ravaged Native American communities at disproportionate rates across the United States, in part due to long-standing health disparities and a lack of infrastructure and medical access, the Blackfeet Nation held on to takes into account warnings regarding the spread of the virus with strict closures, distance learning for schools, social distancing rules and mask requirements.
The tribe’s Business Council has taken the drastic step of shutting down its eastern entrance to Glacier National Park for the 2020 tourist season – sacrificing economic revenues for the protection of public health.
“You could have heard a fly fly, that’s how quiet it was,” said tribe spokesperson James McNeely.
It seemed to be working: For more than 100 days, the tribe had not recorded any cases of Covid-19. But in mid-October, as the coronavirus hit states in new hot spots across the country, with rapid spread to the plains and the Midwest, where government rules on social gatherings were more lax, the Blackfeet tribe was no longer protected by its fortified bubble and recorded nearly 400 active cases.
The tribe used incentives, such as cleaning supplies and gift cards, to encourage people to get tested.
A Report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April, which examined the Blackfeet Nation’s use of stay-at-home orders and mask warrants – far more stringent than state guidelines – found them to be beneficial, contributing to a “reduction in 33 times the incidence of Covid-19 ”compared to the tribe’s October peak a month later.
Other tribal communities in Montana instituted similar restrictions after suffering the consequences of the coronavirus: While Native Americans make up about 7% of the state’s population, they accounted for more than a third of Covid-19 deaths, according to state health data. .
“We stood out as a tribe because we made some bold statements,” DesRosier said. “Word got out that we really take it seriously.”
This determination continued after the vaccines arrived at the end of December.
Indian Health Service, the federal agency that provides public health services to federally recognized Native American tribes and the Native Alaskan population, has delivered Covid-19 vaccines to more than 350 tribal health programs and organizations urban Indian women. Since June 1, the agency has helped administer over 1.3 million doses.
Indian Health Service spokeswoman Jennifer Buschick said on Friday that the agency’s work to remove barriers to vaccine accessibility and immunization efforts “had been successful despite the predominance of areas rural and remote [the agency] service and the infrastructure challenges these communities face.
The Blackfeet Nation, as well as the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, where the Nakoda and Aaniiih tribes reside, have some of the highest vaccine delivery rates in the agency’s health system in Montana, Buschick confirmed.
Fifty-eight percent of eligible Fort Belknap members are fully immunized through the Indian Health Service, while 35 percent of the Blackfeet Nation are fully immunized through the agency. The Blackfeet Nation’s total immunization rate also includes doses provided by the state of Montana.
For the Blackfeet Nation, the response to vaccinations has been overwhelmingly positive: in early March, more than half of residents received at least one dose of a vaccine. In addition to offering vaccines at local hospitals and clinics, health workers hit the road with a mobile command vehicle filled with vaccines.
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Other tribes have seen their people clamor for vaccines, especially in the Navajo Nation, the largest native american tribe by registered population. Navajo officials said last month that over 70 percent of eligible tribal members who receive their health care through India’s health service are now fully immunized.
Native American groups have pointed out that while citizens remain largely skeptical of federal government policies, door-to-door vaccination campaigns in rural and remote areas have reached more people. Tribal health workers also take the time to have conversations focused on how vaccines can prevent deaths, especially among older members, and thus preserve tribal culture and language.
DesRosier said other communities hoping to replicate what the Blackfeet Nation has done must make headway to tackle disinformation, even as reluctance to vaccinate continues to be fueled, in part, by false claims and conspiracies on Facebook and widespread politicization.
“It is shameful that politics got involved in vaccines,” he added. “It’s about saving lives.”
Earlier this spring, the Blackfeet Nation’s success in vaccinating its members allowed it to share its excess doses north of the border. He worked with his counterparts in the Blackfoot Confederacy, a collection of Indigenous communities that includes the Blackfeet of Montana and three other tribes in Canada who share a common language.
At the time, vaccination rates in Canada were lower than in the United States due to its limited supply. (Almost 6 percent of the Canadian population has been fully immunized, according to the latest health data.)
Last year, the Blackfeet Nation was in desperate need of personal protective equipment amid a nationwide shortage, and the Blackfoot Confederacy in Canada, which had sufficient supplies, grew stronger. Giving vaccines was the Blackfeet’s way of “paying back the gift,” said Bonnie Healy, director of health for the Blackfoot Confederacy.
A partnership between the various tribes, Canadian health departments and United States customs and border protection has helped immunize more than 1,300 Canadians.
At the first vaccination clinic in April, Healy said, there were first additional doses of the Moderna vaccine, which led the Blackfoot Confederacy to open up the initiative to non-tribal Canadians as well. As the Blackfoot Confederacy organized a second vaccination clinic, also allowing non-tribal people to participate, hundreds of people from across the region showed up. The line of cars reached 6 miles in length, and many had to be turned back.
While the race relations between the tribes of southern Alberta and the local communities stay charged, Healy said, the vaccination clinics made possible by the Blackfeet Nation have helped ease some of the tensions with how the tribes “paid off” for him.
“We have had people crying and being so grateful for the opportunity to receive this vaccine,” Healy said.
Similar alliances have emerged along the Canada-U.S. Border in recent weeks, including the state of Alaska shares vaccines with residents of British Columbia and North Dakota agrees to vaccinate truckers From Canada.
With more Canadians and tourists vaccinated, Blackfeet Tribe member Nathan St. Goddard said he was ready for the rush of travelers to the area this summer and was optimistic for a turnaround after a week -end charge of Memorial Day.
St. Goddard, who runs Johnson’s of St. Mary’s, a campsite and restaurant for visitors to Glacier National Park, praised the Blackfeet’s vaccination campaign for “doing a good job of dispelling any rumors” about vaccines. It was not long before he was vaccinated.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Now, he said, he hopes the tribe will consider further easing their Covid-19 restrictions given that collective immunity – the idea that enough people are immune to stop transmission of a virus – has been reached among the Blackfeet Nation.
McNeely, the tribe’s spokesperson, said Thursday that he did not anticipate the mask’s current mandate would be lifted until the vaccine was approved for those under 12. He pleads for a little more patience.
“In a year,” he said, “we will be back to normal.”