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Minnesota tribe reflects on major vaccination effort

Nearly six months after Leech Lake's vaccine distribution was launched, the unsung heroes reflected on the process since then.

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Members of the vaccine team in Cass Lake on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
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CASS LAKE, Minn. -- On Monday, Dec. 14, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe became likely the first tribal nation in the country to receive doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. The vials were welcomed with fanfare and traditional prayer, and inserted into the upper deltoids of some carefully chosen tribal members and employees.

Nearly six months after Leech Lake's vaccine distribution was launched, the unsung heroes reflected on the process.

The team of vaccine staff at Leech Lake may not call themselves heroes -- but the community certainly seems to think so. The team has been pummeled with gratitude, requests for hugs, kind notes, baked goods and happy dances post-jab.

“We got thank you cards and emails from people, we had people crying, from joy or relief,” one vaccinator remarked.

While it’s appreciated, what they really want is for more people to take the vaccine. As of mid-April, demand for the shot has stagnated.

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A stellar staff

More than 20 members of the COVID-19 vaccine team assembled in Leech Lake on May 5 -- including Indian Health Service (IHS) employees and Leech Lake Tribal employees, nurses, and others -- to reflect on what they had accomplished over the past months.

The team was formed from people who were willing and able to give up their “normal role” on Tuesdays and Fridays -- many hadn’t worked together much before, as some were new to their roles, and some coming from the IHS side or the tribal side or vice versa.

Meghan Paquette, director of nursing, said she hoped the staff would be recognized for their work, as they were often behind the scenes, day in and day out.

Team members described typical vaccine events -- which usually took place in gymnasiums or the Leech Lake Boys and Girls Club -- the process was strategic to keep people moving swiftly and safe from the spread of COVID.

Staff members credited ingenuity in the form of different colored papers and different syringes on days with different types of vaccines available.

Many reflecting on the vaccine events said the most memorable part was being able to help so many people. Staff members said they didn’t have anything to compare the experience of conducting these massive vaccine clinics to -- outside of COVID-19 testing events and this season’s flu vaccine events.

Some said it became something they looked forward to each week. They expressed feeling like they are a part of history.

“I went around and I got mostly everyone's signature because it's kind of like well, this is our team. This is kind of a moment in history that we're all aware of,” vaccinator Josh Red Day said.

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Staff recalled the first vaccine event that was open to surrounding communities, not just tribal members. Lines of people waiting to be vaccinated stretched around the block.

For a while, with each event, more people came, and the vaccinators got faster and more efficient. It only improved when people returned for the second doses, as the participants knew the drill.

“Our first day that we thought, ‘Wow, what a big day,’ we vaccinated a couple hundred,” said vaccine team member Hannah Tolman. “Oh my gosh, we did a couple hundred people.’’

Soon they blew that out of the water, with their largest vaccination event inoculating around 1,300 people in five hours.

Team members described busy vaccination days as everything from a “blur” to “manageable chaos.”

“The day we did 1,200 was crazy, after that everything else was just a breeze,” one team member said. “It was nice to hear the community and people there for their shots noticing how smoothly it ran. Lots of people commented on that.”

Team members said they felt hopeful after receiving their own vaccines, which they administered to each other. Staff said it was helpful having just received them, being able to give advice and reassurance to patients.

“People would ask what could or would happen after the shot, and we had some experiences,” one recalled.

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Staff said aside from anxiety-induced responses, there were no onsite adverse reactions to the vaccine, and almost no doses wasted.

The team said they’d never seen people so excited to get a shot -- many said people were taking selfies, asking for hugs, saying “thank you” and dressing up.

“They're a great group. They put everything on the line,” Interim Leech Lake Health Director Vince Rock said of the vaccine team, noting that six of them contracted COVID-19 during their time working for the tribe but that they all recovered.

These vaccine champs are so effective, that a group of them has been drafted to help distribute COVID-19 vaccines in Michigan, just returning to Minnesota this week.

Vaccine timeline

Rock described how the vaccine initiative in the area unfolded. The period between December and May was marked by rapid changes.

“Mid-December, we got our first doses of Pfizer and we had a prayer ceremony,” Rock said. “We were the first Native American reservation to get the vaccine and then we got a big dose right at the beginning. I think we had over 1,300 doses of Pfizer.”

He said the first populations to receive these vaccines were the sick, elderly and healthcare workers.

According to the Leech Lake News, Cass Lake IHS received 195 vials of the Pfizer vaccine, which is enough for 975 doses, on Dec. 14.

Out of all of the IHS facilities in the country, why was Leech Lake chosen to receive the vaccine first? This is a question no one seems to be able to answer with certainty -- but both the vaccine team and Rock said it is potentially due to the machine-like rollout of flu vaccines in Leech Lake and their careful planning and training ahead of vaccine distribution.

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Melissa Perkins, a pharmacy student on rotation at the Cass Lake Hospital, hands a syringe of the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine to Lt. John Naegeli, a pharmacist with Indian Health Services, who administered all 10 vaccines on Dec. 14, 2020, at the Cass Lake Hospital. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

“Right after that, it was maybe the first of January, when we kind of experienced the drought,” Rock recalled. “All of a sudden the vaccines weren't there anymore for about maybe a month. We were beginning to worry a little bit.”

February came and so did more vaccines. Moderna vaccines became available and Leech Lake found it had some extra on hand. Rock said this is when the tribe began offering vaccines to area schools.

“We realized that a lot of our Native kids went to the schools on the edge of the reservations -- Deer River, Walker and Bemidji, (and we realized) we have to share with them and it just went from there, all of a sudden, you know, we had extra doses available and we didn't want them to go to waste. They can't sit on the shelf,” he said. “We invited all those within the state guidelines at the time to come and share with them. It just blossomed from there and people were very grateful.”

Leech Lake COVID Vaccine Plan by inforumdocs on Scribd

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Many who were vaccinated in Leech Lake were given “I have received my vaccine courtesy of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe” stickers. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

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Mike Myers, an elder from the Seneca Nation of Indians in New York, receives an initial dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 14, 2020, at the Cass Lake Hospital while his wife, Birdie Lyons, a nurse with the Leech Lake tribe, looks on in the background. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

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Mike Myers, an elder from the Seneca Nation of Indians in New York, receives an initial dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 14, 2020, at the Cass Lake Hospital while his wife, Birdie Lyons, a nurse with the Leech Lake tribe, looks on in the background. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Hannah Olson is a multimedia reporter for the Pioneer covering education, Indigenous-centric stories and features.
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