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COVID-19 Vaccine Opens Up To Everyone In Oklahoma Early Thanks To Native Tribes

Updated: Oct 15, 2021

As Oklahoma enters phase 4 of its vaccine rollout plan, anyone over the age of 16 can now receive a vaccine if they wish to do so. However, many residents were already receiving the vaccine about two weeks earlier due to several of Oklahoma’s Native American tribes opening up vaccine eligibility to the general public.

The Chickasaw, Osage, Choctaw, Cherokee and Citizen Potawatomi nations expanded vaccinations beyond their citizens while the Oklahoma government was still on phase 3 of its vaccine rollout plan. Phase 3 included healthcare workers, other essential workers, first responders, people 65 years or olders, and those with preexisting medical conditions.

Native Americans, as well as other minorities, have been disproportionately affected by the Coronavirus pandemic. Native Americans have faced higher rates of COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths than any other racial or ethnic group in the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Native Americans are 1.7 times more likely to be infected with the virus than white, non-Hispanic Americans. They are also 3.7 times more likely to be hospitalized and 2.4 times more likely to die from COVID-19.

Tribes were given a choice between receiving vaccine doses from the Indian Health Service (IHS) or their state. The IHS has distributed 1,464,827 doses to tribes across the country and a total of 947,799 of them have already been administered. They received more and more doses of the vaccine as a result of being able to administer them at high rates. As of April 5, race/ethnicity information was available for about 56.5 million (53%) of people who have received at least one dose of the vaccine. 32% were listed as American Indian or Alaska Native, the highest rate out of every race/ethnicity.

“The goal is to vaccinate as many people as possible to begin to reach the herd immunity that is needed to protect the general public against the COVID-19 virus,” says Todd Hallmark, Executive Officer of Health at the Choctaw Nation.

Tribes were given complete autonomy on how they would distribute the vaccine and which groups of people would get priority. This allowed tribes to successfully protect their most vulnerable members and tailor messaging to build trust in the vaccine within their population. While many states and counties faced disorganization in vaccine distribution, registration, and long lines, Native tribes were able to distribute the injections efficiently. Many tribes attribute their success in vaccinating many people to their sturdy infrastructures, success in vaccinating early priority groups, and vaccine hesitancy. With many people in early eligibility groups being reluctant to get the vaccine, tribes saw a surge of vaccine demand when expanding vaccine eligibility until an eventual steep drop-off. Restricting eligibility eventually became an obstacle in distribution, and many Native nations subsequently decided to open to the general public. While the Chickasaw, Osage, and Choctaw nation will continue to combat vaccine hesitancy in early priority groups, “that hesitancy mean[s] that we have more vaccines to give beyond just the Native American patients in our area, so that’s translated to more vaccines for non-Indians,” Dr. Ronald Shaw, CEO of the Osage Nation WahZhaZhe Health Center, said.

Through Teen Lenses: What are your thoughts on native tribes in Oklahoma being able to offer COVID-19 vaccines to the general public before the government could?

“The government is weighed down by bureaucracy and the response to vaccines in the highest echelons of government have set a terrible precedent for vaccine rollout, so I believe it makes perfect sense that native tribes have been able to outpace the government.” Alanna Li, 17, Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD
“I believe that the fact that the Oklahoma native tribes were able to distribute the vaccines before the American government demonstrates the amount of ineptitude and red tape that the government unnecessarily has.” Dylan Safai, 17, Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD
“It is pretty selfless of the tribes to offer the vaccines by appointment to anyone to help spread immunity. I am in full support of them not following the CDC recommendations for eligibility groups since they have clearly shown that it’s better when they don’t. The goal is to get everyone safe, and these tribes are definitely doing their part.” Tyler Bush, 17, Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD


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