'I'm going to be able to hug my mom again': COVID vaccine arrives first for Native nations in Minn.

A woman wearing a face mask receives a vaccine.
U.S. Public Health Service Cmdr. Deanne Udby administers a COVID-19 vaccine to floor nurse Sandra Kier at the White Earth Health Center in the village of White Earth, Minn., Tuesday. Health care workers on reservations across Minnesota were among the first to be vaccinated.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

During his visit to the Indian Health Service clinic in the village of White Earth Tuesday, Rear Adm. Michael Weahkee talked about the challenges of distributing the coronavirus vaccine to hundreds of tribal nations across the country.

"We're in some of the most rural and remote locations in our country,” the IHS director said, “but we have worked for months to ensure this distribution is seamless."

As the coronavirus vaccine makes its way to states and tribal nations across the country, health care workers on reservations in Minnesota are among the first to be vaccinated. The Indian Health Service office in Bemidji, which serves tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, was the first IHS office in the nation to receive the vaccine.

Kailee Fretland, the deputy lead of the federal Indian Health Service vaccine task force, said its advance planning put the regional office at the top of the IHS distribution list. The office’s ability to redistribute the vaccine to tribes across Minnesota, and in Michigan and Wisconsin, was key to its strategy, she said.

The vaccine arrived Monday, and was stored in a super cold storage unit in Cass Lake.

"The vaccine came in at 8:30 a.m., and then we just kind of took a deep breath,” said Daniel Frye, who runs the Bemidji regional office. “Everyone was excited. It was there, we've been waiting all this time, and then we just prepared and said, ‘Now it's time to execute our plan. We've been waiting months for this, now let's do it.’"

Drivers delivered doses to several Native nations across Minnesota. And a Coast Guard helicopter carried the vaccine to tribes in Michigan and Wisconsin, in coolers with temperature data loggers that record the vaccine temperature every five minutes.

Later on Monday, a handful of health care workers in Cass Lake were the first IHS staffers — and among the first people anywhere in Minnesota — to be vaccinated.

"One of the nurses, she got vaccinated and the first thing she said was, ‘I'm going to be able to hug my mom again,’” said Frye. “She was to tears, it brought others to tears. It was one of the most emotional moments I've had in my life."

Ten IHS workers at the White Earth health center in northwestern Minnesota received the vaccine on Tuesday, after a spiritual leader offered tobacco and prayers.

Security guard Robert Roy was among the vaccine recipients. He nonchalantly rolled up his sleeve when it was his turn.

"This will be your first dose,” a nurse told him, as she loaded the vaccine and quickly injected his left arm.

"Didn't feel nothing," Roy said.

This week, 120 employees will be given their first of the two-dose vaccine at the White Earth clinic. The Bemidji IHS office expects to vaccinate nearly 2,000 people this week over the three states it covers. Across the country, the service expects to vaccinate all of its health care workers by early January.

“We feel confident that once the Moderna vaccine is reviewed and approved by the FDA that with the initial allocations of the Pfizer and Moderna, we'll be able to cover 100 percent of our employees,” said Weahkee.

Nationally, Native nations have the option of coordinating with IHS or with states on vaccine distribution. In Minnesota, six tribes have chosen to get the vaccine from IHS and five have opted to work with the Minnesota Department of Health.

Bemidji IHS Director Frye said some tribal governments already have established systems for working with the state on distributing the annual flu vaccine, so it made sense for them to use the same system to distribute the coronavirus vaccine.

For now, health care workers and elders are first in line to be vaccinated on reservations. But given the history of mistrust of the federal government in Indian Country — and historically underfunded health care systems — there is concern among Native American doctors that some tribal members might decide against getting the vaccine when it's more widely available.

“I get anxious about the fact that we already struggle with our patients. They already have lots of barriers to health care,” said Dr. Mary Owen, who leads the Center of American Indian and Minority Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Duluth.

“[If] we manage to get them in for the first shot, how are we going to make sure they get in for the second shot? I know we've got to get it done. But I also can have a healthy dose of anxiety over 'Are we going to get this right?’ ”

Owen, who is also president of the Association of American Indian Physicians, said her organization is planning a push to raise awareness of the vaccine across Indian Country. Physicians across the country will be recording messages to post on social media starting next week, encouraging tribal members to get vaccinated.

White Earth Tribal Chair Michael Fairbanks said he thinks that, after seeing the pain and suffering COVID-19 has caused, people will be ready for the vaccine.

"We're all going to come around eventually that we're going to have to take it if we want any type of norm,” he said.

“We talk about living our lives back to the way we used to. Until everyone gets vaccinated, that's when hopefully the numbers will drop dramatically and start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel."

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.