Lessons We Can Learn For COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution in Native Communities

PWNA was recently invited to participate in a listening session with Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security CommuniVax Coalition to discuss COVID-19 vaccine distribution. The Coalition has since published and shared the ‘Equity in Vaccination’ report on their findings and recommendations after numerous critical stakeholder conversations. I appreciated the opportunity to provide an Indigenous perspective and am pleased with the report that was issued, but there is a burning question that remains: will anything change?

The report proposes a plan for leaders to layout an equitable “Five I’s” vaccination campaign that includes iteration, involvement, information, investment and integration.  The report also includes a comprehensive checklist for leaders to follow at each section that allows for adjustments, flexibility and unpredictable nuance(s) that may exist. And as we’ve seen over the past 11 months of the pandemic, information changes rapidly.

As the report indicates, communities are not a monolith and there’s not a cookie-cutter solution that will solve every dilemma, but therein lies an opportunity to solve immediate issues through long-term solutions. This approach is consistent with how PWNA approaches our work with reservation partners.

Five weeks ago, when the early distribution of the vaccine was being rolled out to communities across the nation, the same concerns I had then were reflected in the listening session, including widespread mistrust throughout the community because of historical trauma, misrepresentation of data that accurately counts Native American communities, lack of access to vaccine information, and inaccessibility of healthcare services in Native communities. 

Tribes have since superseded these barriers and surpassed expectations in all aspects of the rollout. We’re seeing Native leaders step up to support vaccine distribution, agility to administer the shot and less bureaucratic red tape to stall these efforts. Stories of Native communities getting their members – and even non-members – vaccinated are trickling in, and they’re consistent with a discussion I previously had with a Tribal councilman. The councilman shared they’d been getting grief about giving the vaccine to non-members, to which I responded, “get it into everyone’s arms that will take it.”

Getting people vaccinated that are in our communities, interacting with our community members, or working for our enterprises should not be excluded. This is paramount in caring for the health and well-being of our community and putting the whole ahead of the individual has been a custom of Indigenous people from the beginning.

The JHU report goes on to say that the recovery group should also strategize how to reverse the underlying social and economic inequalities that made some groups more vulnerable to adverse pandemic effects in the first place. This could not be more true. Isn’t it time to change the approach and use a framework that will leverage the community as the solution and not the problem?  John’s Hopkins University thinks so, and so does PWNA.

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