As states across the country have struggled to find the most efficient and effective ways to roll out the COVID-19 vaccine, tribal nations in Oklahoma have vaccinated their own communities at record-breaking rates. Now, having offered vaccination appointments to all of their own citizens, several tribes have also opened appointments to all Oklahoma residents.
Any Oklahoma resident regardless of tribal affiliation may book appointments to get their vaccines through the Osage, Choctaw, Chickasaw or Cherokee Nations. This includes individuals that may not otherwise be eligible for the vaccine through the Oklahoma State Health Department based on factors like their age, job or health.
When vaccines first became available in the United States after being cleared by the FDA, doses were distributed to each state and to tribal nations based on their population, allowing each government to distribute vaccines to a percentage of their populations. In addition to this, the Indian Health Service (IHS), a federal health program for American Indians and Alaska Natives, also distributed more than 1.1 million vaccines and administered almost 700,000 shots throughout the country. After receiving about $1 billion in COVID-19 relief funds, IHS was able to fund vaccine distribution throughout the tribal work.
After first having made vaccines available to their own citizens, tribes like the Cherokee Nation opened appointments to anyone living within their tribal jurisdiction or any member of a federally recognized tribe earlier this month. As of March 17, the Cherokee Nation had administered more than 33,000 vaccines throughout their nine distribution centers; the Chickasaw Nation had administered more than 32,000. The Chickasaw Nation administers vaccines in four cities with its largest center being a 16-land drive through in Ada, the Nation’s headquarters. Following a similar plan implemented in the Navajo Nation, the Cherokee nation is planning “strike teams,” in which nurses will be sent to rural parts of Oklahoma with single doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to meet people in their homes and encourage higher rates of vaccination throughout the state.
Native American communities were disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that American Indian and Alaska Natives were affected by the virus at a rate 3.5 times greater than non-Hispanic white people in the United States. Now, through their efficient systems for administering vaccine doses, Native populations represent some of the highest rates of vaccination in the country.
Chief medical officer for the Chickasaw Nation, Dr. John Krueger, credited the tribe’s robust infrastructure for its efficiency in being able to move into a new phase in which they can offer vaccines to non-Native members of the Oklahoma community. Cpt. Clinton Bullock, director of pharmacy for the Choctaw Nation Health Care Center, explained the decision to open vaccine appointments to non-tribal Oklahomans.
“There are, of course, non-Native members of the community that our tribal citizens come in contact with,” Bullock said. “Helping to develop this herd immunity not only benefits the tribal members, but the community as a whole.”
The move to open vaccination appointments to all Oklahomans was in part a result of the declining number of appointments various Nations saw in their vaccination bookings. With greater numbers of vaccines than eligible individuals, tribes were able to remove criteria to offer wider distribution with the intent of protecting the larger Oklahoma community.
With increasing numbers of eligible Oklahomans looking to book appointments to vaccinate themselves and loved ones, tribal nations have played an instrumental role in ensuring availability of doses. Oklahoma as a whole has now fully vaccinated more than 14 percent of its population with about 27 percent of the population having received a single dose.