indianhealthservice
“We remain committed to vaccine availability for all individuals within our health system,” the Indian Health Service said in a post on social media. Photo: IHS
Leading the Way in COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution in Indian Country
Friday, March 5, 2021
Special Assistant to the President for Native Affairs, White House

In Oklahoma on Tuesday, the Indian Health Service (IHS) announced a significant milestone: 500,000 vaccinations had been administered across Indian Country.

IHS reached the target ahead of schedule, despite severe winter weather and the challenges of working in rural and remote locations across Indian Country. In fact, the Indian health system has consistently attained higher vaccination rates than most states. Compared to the other 64 state, territory and federal entity jurisdictions distributing vaccines, the IHS currently ranked #10 in percent of people received one or more doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

While this is a success worth celebrating, the stark health outcomes faced by American Indian and Alaska Native populations, including those in Oklahoma, remind us of the long road ahead. Per capita COVID-19 infection rates for people living on reservations is four times higher than for all Americans, and disparities also show up in higher mortality rates.

Even as they work diligently to protect public health, a number of Frontline IHS workers have been infected. Nonetheless, a well-organized and effective distribution process continues to drive the vaccine response in Indian Country forward. Working with tribal communities, the Indian health system has administered more than 500,000 doses to patients, health care employees, essential workers, and others in Native communities since the vaccines started arriving in mid-December.

President Biden recently announced a major initiative to increase vaccinations. Initially his plan will increase the vaccine supply to tribes, states, and territories from 8.6 million doses to 10 million doses per week.

Just last month, the IHS received a supplemental supply of 130,000 vaccines to distribute to federal, tribal, and urban Indian health care programs. The second dose of the 130,000-vaccine supplement arrived last week. For too long, American Indians and Alaska Natives have been last in line. With the vaccine response, Native communities are finally being treated fairly in a matter of vital importance.

The next vaccination goal for the IHS is to administer 1 million COVID-19 vaccines by the end of March. The federal vaccination effort is only possible through strong partnerships with tribal and urban Indian health facilities. Tribal Nations and tribal health programs are demonstrating tremendous efficiency.

We all know that Tribal Nations are in the best position to determine the needs of their citizens, and many tribes are choosing to vaccinate not only their own members but also members of other tribes and non-Indians neighbors who live within their boundaries.

Oklahoma tribes have also prioritized vaccines for tribal elders and native language speakers. My own tribe, the Chickasaw Nation, recently committed to making vaccinations available to educators and their family members in Oklahoma at no cost. This is the kind of compassion and leadership we need during this difficult time.

Tribal Nations are experts at persistence, and in this time of crisis, they are demonstrating this important value once again. When Indian Country succeeds in this vaccination effort, the entire country succeeds in overcoming this disease.


Libby Washburn is the Special Assistant to the President for Native Affairs in the White House and a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation.