While Gov. Greg Gianforte recently announced that all Montanans will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines on Apr. 1, tribal nations in the state have made the vaccine available to everyone and are currently reporting some of the highest vaccination rates in Montana.
Jennifer Show is a nurse practitioner at Fort Belknap Tribal Health Department. She says they are well positioned to distribute the vaccine because of partnerships with Indian Health Service, and a longstanding public health nursing program that trained nine local nurses who handled contact tracing at the beginning of the pandemic.
“So these girls were ready to go, ready to start helping get this vaccine out. We knew our population, which is another plus for us. The girls work out in that area. They know where they are, and they know how to get a hold of them, which I think kind of helped us with getting this rolled out so much faster as well,” Show says.
Tribes are also trying creative vaccination strategies. Show says Fort Belknap Tribal Health began vaccinating teenagers in the area during the week of Mar. 15 by partnering with local school systems both on and nearby the reservation. By this point, teachers in the area were already vaccinated.
“We don’t live in a bubble. So, you know, the more we can vaccinate around us. As well as us, ourselves, the better off we're going to be as trying to keep our numbers down,” Show says.
Tribal nations are proving highly effective at vaccinating quickly and efficiently.
Blackfeet Nation is currently reporting 95% of eligible enrolled members are vaccinated. IHS data from the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes and the Chippewa Cree of Rocky Boy’s reservation show a third of tribal members in these areas are now vaccinated compared to about 15 percent of Montana as a whole as of Friday.
Molly Wendland, the tribal health director for the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, says the tribe has partnered with Alluvian Health in Great Falls, and is trying different vaccine approaches all the time. Instead of appointments one week, they offered an evening walk-in vaccine clinic to see if that attracted members working day shifts.
“We're really just trying to make it as convenient as we can for all of our members to get vaccinated,” Wendland says.
Vaccines are coming to tribes from direct federal allocations to IHS and sometimes through the state. Native Americans are also prioritized under the state’s vaccination plan due to higher risks of death and health complications from COVID-19.
Little Shell Health Director Wendland says,
“I really do think that tribal nations have done a really good job.”
It’s hard to disagree. Look at Montana’s COVID-19 vaccine tracker map and you’ll see the dark green areas of high vaccination rates almost perfectly highlight tribal nations.
Kaitlyn Nicholas is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America Indigenous affairs reporter.