Within days of Montana’s first confirmed COVID-19 case, Blackfeet Nation declared a state of emergency and closed down. One year later, Blackfeet Nation is one area leading the country in high vaccination rates. Community buy-in is one of the reasons health care workers can now turn their vaccination efforts toward those outside of the reservation.
A high wind keeps pushing over a heavy plywood reading “Vaccine Shots Here” in a parking lot in St. Mary. Beside the sign is the black RV the Blackfeet Tribal Health Department operates as their mobile clinic, taking COVID-19 vaccines from one remote town to the next.
Inside is a group of first and second-year nursing students from Blackfeet Community College, their instructor Rayola Grant, and Brittany Racine, a registered nurse at the tribal health improvement program.
Racine says walk-in vaccine appointments were opened to everyone a month ago at the same time they launched the mobile RV clinic.
“Because a lot of the barriers to health, like barriers to getting the vaccine and stuff, is no transportation or finances,” Racine said.
This strategy is just one factor contributing to Blackfeet’s high vaccination rate. On Tuesday, Blackfeet COVID-19 Incident Command reported 7,800 people have been vaccinated, including over 95% of adult members of Blackfeet Nation.
Once the vaccine was available to any adult in mid-March, regardless of residency or tribal status, nurses say people travelled to their clinics from as far away as California, Idaho and Seattle to get a shot.
But others just happened to be in the area. Daniel Hines was replacing logs on older buildings in Glacier National Park.
“The maintenance guy told me they happened to be in the parking lot and they were giving away shots. And I knew I could get an appointment, but it's right here, right now. So, I said, ‘What the heck!’” Hines said.
Nurse Racine says unvaccinated locals are now just those who aren’t ready to get it.
“I think we've pretty much covered everyone that wants to get it. And I think the last 5%, they're going to start slowly trickling in. And we received the Pfizer vaccine, so we'll be targeting our 16- and 17-year-olds now,” Racine said.
A 95% vaccination rate is much higher than the rest of the country. Several factors made this possible. Vaccines are coming to the tribe from two sources: Blackfeet’s tribal health department receives allotments through Montana’s health department while the two Indian Health Service units on the reservation receive another allocation from the federal government.
But Racine says education played an important role as well as the fact that everyone in Blackfeet Nation was personally impacted by COVID-19.
“And we're such a small community. And so when we would have a death, we were all really impacted by it. That had a lot to do with people wanting to get vaccinated, so they wouldn't lose a family member or they wouldn't put people at risk,” Racine said.
Since March 15, 2020, Blackfeet Nation has lost 47 tribal members to COVID-19.
Rayola Grant is the nursing instructor at Blackfeet Community College. She says the vaccine rollout order was also important. Frontline workers in health care, grocery stores and other high-contact jobs were vaccinated first, followed by elders.
“I think that was really encouraging for people who didn't want to, because the elders got it first. We also look to them for our guidance. They got it so that guided the younger generation to have a little more trust, a little more willingness, even though they were very scared,” Grant said.
Grant says many were worried about the side effects of the vaccine, which can include fevers, nausea and body aches. She says elders also needed to confront traumatic past experiences to get the vaccine.
Historical documents show that during the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. Government repeatedly abused Native Americans in health care, in one instance doing medical testing without consent on Native children in boarding schools and in another sterilizing Native women suffering from mental illness. Grant says providing education to elders about COVID vaccines has helped alleviate some mistrust of the federal government.
"But it's also coming from, from their people, you know, from people who look like them," Grant said. "We're so community oriented. And so I think the elders really had to step up and show the younger people, ‘We did it! Get in line!'"
"They are so strong!" Racine adds. "Like, I don't think one elder I've heard of got sick from the vaccine."
Community protection started early in the pandemic, when Blackfeet Nation took proactive measures to minimize exposure to the coronavirus. A study published by the CDC last Friday found Stay At Home orders and mask mandates put in place by the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council last fall resulted in a 33-fold reduction of COVID-19 cases on the reservation.
Since classes in the schools and the community college went online last spring, many of the same nursing students giving out vaccines today have been studying from home alongside their children throughout the pandemic.
“And that's probably another reason why we want the vaccine is because there isn't a lot of housing, but there are a lot of people who live here. Like off of the reservation, you have your mom, your dad and your two kids. Well, on the reservation, you may have your grandma, siblings, there's a lot of other people," Grant said.
"Because of that, we have to be able to protect everybody. Even though we're worried about the vaccine itself, I think we’re more worried about losing our family members."
Since vaccines have been so widely distributed, Grant says their effectiveness has been “proven” to the tight-knit community.
“It’s real. You know we haven’t had a funeral for COVID lately since the vaccines,” Grant said.
Kaitlyn Nicholas is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America Indigenous affairs reporter.