Vaccinating Navajo Nation

National News

The White House says it will spend more than $4 billion to fight COVID-19 in Native American communities — including 600 million for vaccinations.

Friday morning, First Lady Jill Biden is visiting the Navajo Nation.

The largest Native American reservation had one of the country’s highest per-capita death rates last year.

More than 1,200 of its people have died of COVID.

Now, the territory is leading the nation in vaccination rates and could be the first in the u-s to achieve herd immunity.

Mireya Villarreal traveled to Navajo Nation in Arizona and New Mexico to check on the fight — and the lessons learned.

The journey to reach herd immunity on the navajo nation… Hasn’t always been a smooth one.

“We are going to a small community south of Shiprock, New Mexico. We’re going to get smiles when we get there,” said Nurse Lyle Lee.

Lee drove nearly an hour to give 72-year-old Jonah Johnson the first dose.

Johnson was willing to take the vaccine but refused to leave his rural home.

“It’s very important to, you know, for us to do these types of visits, and just respecting their choice,” said Lee.

Mckinley County, New Mexico borders the Navajo Nation and is made up of more than 70 percent of Native Americans.

In September of 2020, this county ranked first in the state and sixth nationally for COVID deaths per capita.

“At first, we didn’t really have our guard up, but once it hit within our family, that’s when reality hit,” said Jamie Barboan.

Reality struck quickly for Barboan’s family. Her mother, Yvonne Tolth, got COVID-19 first.

“One of my sons, he passed. He spent like, a month and a half in the hospital, and he fought it but didn’t come home,” said Tolth.

“How hard was that for you, Yvonne?”

“Hard. I would get mad and just cried a lot, and my daughter just stood by me and my other kids,” Tolth said.

The high death toll led tribe officials to spread the word about the importance of vaccines.

“It spread like wildfire,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said.

Nez was one of the first to get his shot, posting pictures on social media. He also hosts weekly town halls to help educate the nearly 300,000 members.

“Any outside entity, I think, of all people of color, there’s some distrust with the federal government. And so I think when we started the discussions about getting the vaccines, you know, we were out there daily, almost just getting the information to our Navajo citizens,” Nez said.

It wasn’t just providing that information. The moment they got access to vaccines, leaders split their efforts between mass vaccination sites like the one in the video above and meeting people out in their own communities.

“We’ve had a rough time in covid, but we fought very hard and we have succeeded to fight back covid,” said the tribe’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Loretta Christensen.

Dr. Christensen says their efforts have led to more than 70% of Navajo Nation receiving their first dose.

“I think that we are either at herd immunity or very, very close,” Dr. Christensen said.

“Are you smiling under your mask?”

“I am smiling, yes. I am very proud of what we’ve done,” the doctor said.

Most of Barboan’s family has been vaccinated, with the hope of preventing future heartache.

“Why are you so set on taking this?”

“What my mom has went through and what I’ve seen. I don’t want to go through that. I don’t want my kids to see myself or my spouse go through it. It’s all about safety and family. That’s why I feel 100 percent confident and happy and safe that the vaccine is here,” Barboan said.

Even as the Navajo Nation reaches herd immunity, they are not going to let their guard down, especially as states around them continue to open up.

They are very worried about another potential surge, so they have put strict guidelines in place that include a mask mandate and an overnight curfew.

Here in North Dakota, it’s no different.

The push to vaccinate Native Americans on our five reservations has been a top priority for the state.

The Department of Health says 41 percent of our Native American population has received at least one dose of the vaccine.

United Tribes Technical College is holding another vaccine clinic April 26-27.

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