The NATIVE Project pushes to vaccinate tribal citizens

SPOKANE, Wash. — Tribal citizens 60-years-old and younger are dying from COVID-19 at a much higher rate than non-Hispanic Whites, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute. The NATIVE Project wants to make sure no one else becomes part of this statistic.

The push to vaccinate tribal citizens has hit a roadblock, mainly because of vaccination history with the government.

“They unintentionally harmed those Native populations that did the trials [vaccine] back in the 50s, 60s and 70s,” said Dylan Dressler, Clinic Director at the NATIVE Project*. “So we have a lot of rough and challenging history regarding vaccinations in our community.”

She said the trials were for Hepatitis A and smallpox. Many got sick and died. This was the driving force for the facility to do as much COVID-19 vaccine research as they could.

Some people, like Colville tribal member Kelly Duke, said she was on board to take the vaccine from the start.

“There were so many outbreaks, especially with the elders,” Duke said, “and so it’s so important that I want to make sure that I do my part for my elders.”

Duke got her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Monday. She’s a clinical manager at a behavioral health agency. Duke said she got the vaccine for her job and her elders.

“It feels really good. I feel really excited to just be able to encourage other people to do what they have to do,” she explained.

The NATIVE Project staff members are sharing their own vaccination journeys, hoping they can encourage tribal members to take it, such as Duke. About a month ago, Vinetta MacPherson, a Rosebud Sioux tribal member and an ARNP at the NATIVE Project, got her COVID-19 vaccine.

She and many other healthcare workers want to pave the way for the tribes as the NATIVE Project serves 330 recognized tribes and about 14,000 tribal citizens.

“I want to be able to get back to our normal community life around pow wows and markets and traditions and our culture and our heritage,” Dressler said. “Our push is to vaccinate our American Indian, Alaskan Natives elder population, but our mortality rates are in the age groups of 29-40.”

So far, 987 doses have been given out, some as second doses. All together, the NATIVE Project has received 1,850. Dressler said the state will ask the facility how much they need. Typically, it takes about one to two weeks to come through.

The NATIVE Project has a cold storage freezer for the Pfizer vaccines. Dressler said they plan to vaccinate everyone in the state’s Phase 1A category, but did lower the age requirement to 55. That’s because Dressler said the life expectancy for a tribal man in Spokane County is 60-years-old and 62-years-old for women.

“Our elders still have so much more to teach us so I want to do everything possible to encourage people to get their vaccine,” Duke said.

*Editor’s note: A previous version of this story aired with an incorrect statement regarding the date of the Hepatitis A vaccine trial. The information has been clarified in this article.

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