Eighty-five percent of people 65 years or older have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose in Mahnomen County, which sits entirely inside the White Earth Nation’s reservation in northern Minnesota. That’s more than double the 36% of seniors who’ve received at least the first dose of the vaccine statewide.
The quick pace at which people on the reservation are being vaccinated provides hope that the end is near for a pandemic that has been particularly devastating for Native American communities across the country.
The mortality rate for Native Americans is nearly twice that of white Americans, according to an analysis by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With older people being more vulnerable to COVID-19, the virus threatens critical cultural and language legacies for hundreds of tribal communities.
“The elders hold the history and the narrative of life for the people. It’s very important to protect that,” said Pat Butler, health director for White Earth.
Overall, 32% of residents in Mahnomen County, or 1,779 people, have received at least one dose of the vaccine, nearly three times the state average and surpassed only by Cook County, where 38% of residents, or 2,063 people have received at least one dose.
The tribe has progressed so far in its vaccine rollout that now all adult tribal members and descendants as well as their family members are eligible to receive the vaccine.
The high vaccination rate is likely true for the entire reservation, which also includes portions of two other counties, according to Ed Snetsinger, White Earth’s incident commander for the COVID-19 emergency. The tribe doesn’t have data for the entire reservation since doses may be administered by multiple agencies, and it relies on state data to track vaccination progress. The state provides local data for counties but not reservations, making it difficult to quickly see how the vaccination roll-out is playing out on the 10 other reservations in Minnesota.
Snetsinger says the success of the rollout in White Earth is due to the tribe’s community-based health care model, careful planning, adequate vaccine supply from the state and federal governments and concerted outreach efforts.
“We knew this was going to be a challenge,” Snetsinger said. “We put together a solid public information campaign to address the vaccine. It’s still an individual decision, but buy-in has been quite good.”
As part of that campaign, a member of the tribe’s Council of Elders recorded a video message explaining that she planned to get vaccinated when doses became available and encouraged other elders to do the same.
White Earth partnered with the state to receive doses of the vaccine, which it’s distributed in multiple clinics across the reservation, as well as a converted shopping center and in people’s homes for people who receive at-home care.
The tribe’s vaccination program is open to anyone living within the borders of their reservation, not just tribal members since many families include non-tribal members.
The federal Indian Health Service has also played a role by administering its own vaccination program for its patients both on and off reservations.
Native tribes have generally been remarkably efficient at vaccinating their populations and effective at countering vaccine hesitancy among caregivers and other health care workers, which poses a significant challenge across the country.
“The way we’re getting it out to all our community members including non-Natives has just been great,” said White Earth Chairman Michael Fairbanks. “We’ve been fortunate to have such trusted partners with the federal government and the state.”