Overcoming boundaries Native American and Alaska Native vaccination efforts
by campbell small
Sarah Linder who is a nurse for the Southwest Alaskan Tribal Healthcare Provider at the Yukon-Kukokwim Health Corp vaccinating James Evans a fellow Alaskan Native. This was taken on the tarmac in the Napakiak village where Evans works for the YKHC at the clinic.
According to the American Psychological Association research lab, as of March 2021, Indigenous people were more than 3.3 times likely to die from COVID-19 than those who are White or Asian. As of July 1, 2021, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 38.7% of all American Indian or Alaskan Natives (AIAN) are fully vaccinated which is higher than any other racial or ethnic group. The efforts of the Navajo Nation and Alaska Natives are a lesson of resilience worth exploring.
The CDC suggested the AIAN groups struggled because of a lack of access to stable housing, healthy food, water, and transportation. These issues contribute to an increase in the number of comorbidities (two or more diseases or medical conditions in a patient), like diabetes, which in turn, increases the chances of a fatal COVID-19 case. The Navajo Nation faced a huge challenge as many residents lack clean water which prevents doing things like frequent hand washing. Financial challenges in these communities often prevent them from maintaining resources like non-multigenerational stable housing and reliable transportation which are essential in a pandemic.
AIAN people also have a history littered with epidemics and medical abuse. They have faced involuntary sterilizations as well as forced medical experiments. The discrimination they face is reflected in their life expectancy as it is 5.5 years less than any other race in the US. This makes vaccine hesitancy a logical outcome.
So how have they been successful with the COVID-19 vaccine rollout?Well, AIAN communities received drastically more funding than in previous years. The Indian Health Service received a historic 9 billion dollars, which is larger than the 5.8 billion it received in 2019. Moreover, they have a community-oriented attitude with regard to vaccination. According to the Urban Indian Health Institute survey, 74% of AIAN believe that getting vaccinated is their responsibility to their community. As the President of the Navajo Nation, Jonathan Nez, said: “It wasn’t a political statement to wear a mask here. It wasn’t about individualism. It was about the greater good.”, and their vaccination data reflects this.
AIAN people have more control over their vaccine protocols. They choose to prioritize their elders in their vaccine rollout, as they have a higher mortality rate, and their wellbeing helps cultural survival. They also developed tailored methods of deploying the vaccines. In Alaska, some vaccines were transported by dog sled and by local pilots who took pharmacists and vaccines into the most isolated rural areas and Native villages.
AIAN communities prioritized accessible immunization by offering private appointments, drive-up appointments, and mass vaccination events. Other AIAN tribes created call centers staffed by Native language speakers to answer questions about vaccines, which allowed the public access to reliable information from people who understood their culture.
Ultimately, this is a story of overcoming despite the cards you have been given, and it is clear that as a country, we could learn a lot from examining what this group did to survive the pandemic.
Campbell Small is a student who grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico.She attends Linfield University where she studies Political Science and Public Health. She is interested in public health policy as well as the various factors that contribute to public health outcomes.
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