Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

The first Indian health system facility to receive the COVID-19 vaccine was a hospital in northern Minnesota on Ojibwe land.

The Cass Lake Hospital on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation received the distribution on Monday, and health care staff were expected to begin to receive the vaccination immediately, according to Indian Health Service.

The hospital is the first to receive some of the roughly 22,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine dedicated to the federally run agency under Health and Human Services. The Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine last week and could approve a Moderna vaccine this week.

U.S. Public Health Service Lt. John Naegeli, a pharmacist at the Indian Health Service Cass Lake Hospital in Cass Lake, Minnesota, received the first IHS shipment of COVID-19 vaccines on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Indian Health Service)

In a social media post Monday, Indian Health Service Director Michael Weahkee, Zuni Pueblo, said protection of health care personnel is critical to “preserving capacity to care for our patients.”

“The IHS is well prepared and positioned to begin #COVID19 vaccinations, and our ultimate goal is to ensure that vaccines reach #IndianCountry as quickly and equitably as possible,” Weahkee said.

The vaccine distribution comes when the country hits approximately 300,000 deaths in total from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said Monday that the Cass Lake Hospital, an IHS direct-service facility, was one of four facilities in the state to receive vaccine shipments. The others aren’t affiliated with Indian Health Service.

“This is an exciting day for Minnesota,” he said in a statement. “The first vaccines are here. They are safe, and they will be ready to go soon. The sun is coming up, Minnesota.”

(Related: Vaccine is on its way)

It’s unclear how the Cass Lake Hospital was determined to be the first to get the vaccine. 

The hospital received 10 doses on Monday, five dedicated to health care professionals and five for tribal elders, Leech Lake interim Health Director Vince Rock said. 

Before the vaccines, the tribe held a small ceremony. Elders Mike Myers and Birdie Lyons were two of the first to receive the vaccine on Leech Lake, Rock said. 

Mike Myers Birdie Lyons received the COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020 at the Cass Lake Hospital on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of Vince Rock)

The hospital will receive 100 doses by Friday and the tribe will also get 100 doses as part of this first allocation, which will go to elders wanting the vaccine, Rock said.

Rock attributes a successful flu vaccine campaign earlier this year in conjunction with Indian Health Service to stick with the health service for the vaccine rollout instead of opting to go with the state. Multiple flu vaccine events were held throughout the campaign. 

It’s unclear how many tribal citizens will volunteer for the COVID-19 vaccine when its readily available for everyone, but Rock said he has heard from more people lately asking to be placed on a vaccine list.

“I think it goes a long way to have some of these public events that create trust,” he said.

The Gallup Indian Medical Center in New Mexico also received a vaccine distribution, and it will be redistributed to other facilities on the Navajo Nation, according to Indian Health Service. Cherokee Nation received 975 doses on Monday and priority is given to frontline health workers, first responders, elders and Cherokee speakers, according to Cherokee Nation spokesperson Julie Hubbard.

IHS is expected to initially receive 22,425 doses of Pfizer vaccine and 46,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine, according to Indian Health Service.

IHS has requested 2,044,513 vaccines, but that number is updated weekly based on distribution preferences and updates from health facilities, according to Indian Health Service.

As of Dec. 12, IHS counts a total of 120,879 positive COVID-19 cases in its 12 IHS regions throughout the country.

Navajo Nation Police Officer Jershon Begay transports the first delivery of COVID-19 vaccines to an ultra-cold freezer at the Indian Health Service's Gallup Indian Medical Center in Gallup, New Mexico, Dec. 14, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Indian Health Service)

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe posted 47 active cases on Monday and 261 recoveries, according to its Facebook page. As of Monday, the Cass Lake Hospital has tested 3,721 with 422 testing positive. A request for comment from tribal leadership and tribal health officials was not immediately returned.

The Cass Lake Hospital provides care for 12,265 patients and staffs 160 employees, according to Indian Health Service.

The hospital falls under the Bemidji Area Office, which includes Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and a part of Indiana. As of Saturday, the Bemidji Area Office has reported 7,560 positive cases of the coronavirus, according to Indian Health Service.

Eleven of the 12 IHS regions will receive allocated vaccines. Alaska opted for state distribution of the vaccines.

The shipment includes 11,700 doses allocated by the Indian Health Service to Alaska tribes, according to the Associated Press. The state is working with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to coordinate shipment of the vaccine, including to rural villages.

Other tribes are in line to receive the vaccine. The Osage Nation Health Services in Oklahoma is expected to receive the Pfizer vaccine on Tuesday and the Moderna vaccine next week, according to Gaylord News.

The Pfizer vaccine is recommended for those aged 16 and older and is administered in two doses, with the second one coming 21 days after the first.

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The Associated Press and Nancy Spears of Gaylord News contributed to this report.

Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.

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