Nancy Marie Spears
Gaylord News

The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the state’s largest tribe, has vaccinated 70 percent of its employees, nearly doubling the vaccination rate in Oklahoma. They began offering booster doses to immunocompromised individuals on Aug. 19.

The state is prioritizing immunocompromised individuals for now, but boosters for the general public aren’t set to roll out until next month.

Oklahoma tribes have been at the forefront of cautionary and proactive COVID-19 response, even going so far as shutting down all activities on Labor Day due to the rise in cases, notably the delta variant. Some tribes still have mask mandates in place while Gov. Kevin Stitt has never implemented a statewide mask mandate.

The decision to administer booster shots was announced by the media before the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices had met to formalize guidelines.

Indian Health Service cannot give tribal nations any formal guidance on boosters until the committee meets Aug. 30, said Bearskin Health and Wellness Center’s clinic compliance officer John Bearden of the Wyandotte Nation.

IHS Chief Medical Officer Dr. Loretta Christensen said they are preparing to offer booster vaccines this fall for those who have had the Pfizer or Moderna vaccinations, starting eight months after an individual’s second dose.

Those fully vaccinated earliest in the vaccine rollout, like health care providers, nursing home residents, and other seniors, will likely be eligible for a booster, Christensen said.

IHS also anticipates that booster shots may be needed for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, as well, consistent with approved guidelines by the committee, FDA and CDC guidelines.

“We will continue working to ensure that American Indians and Alaska Natives have access to COVID-19 vaccines and that all IHS, tribal, and urban Indian organizations receiving vaccines from the IHS have sufficient supply as we begin administering booster shots,” Christensen said.

The FDA fully approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Aug. 23, which has been cleared for use in individuals 16 and up. The vaccine — which will be remarketed under the brand name Comirnaty — is still under the emergency use authorization for those ages 12-15 and immunocompromised individuals, according to a press release from the Chickasaw Nation. Following the FDA’s approval, the tribe now offers the Pfizer-BioNTech Comirnaty vaccine.

The Absentee Shawnee Tribe is working with IHS’s Oklahoma City area office to ensure they have enough vaccine doses to handle those the CDC designated as a priority for the booster vaccine, said the tribe’s executive director Mark Rogers.

“We will be doing the same expanded community outreach events integrated into our regular vaccination offerings to continue servicing the community and those in need of vaccinations and testing,” Rogers said.

The IHS Oklahoma City regional office will be the primary vaccine provider and distributor for the Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Health Service, according to the tribe’s chief medical officer Dr. Adam Vascellaro.

The Citizen Potawatomi Nation has already begun administering third doses to those that they’ve already vaccinated who have a current qualifying immunocompromising condition.

Vascellaro said distribution will be through in-clinic appointments, strike teams and mass vaccination events.

“How many boosters we receive is not yet known, but OKC-IHS’ vaccine supply appears to be good and much higher than before,” Vascellaro said.

There is nothing different about booster shots — patients simply receive a third dose of the same vaccine products as the initial two doses.

The FDA said serious side effects remain very rare, such as chest pain and heart inflammation a few days after the second dose, mostly in young men.

As for effectiveness, six months into Pfizer’s original study, the vaccine remained 97 percent protective against severe COVID-19. Protection against milder infection waned slightly, from a peak of 96 percent two months after the second dose to 84 percent by six months.

Those findings came before the delta variant began spreading, but other data from the CDC shows the vaccine is still doing a good job preventing severe disease.

Bearden said Wyandotte Nation’s Bearskin Clinic can receive as much as they order. The logistics of storing and distributing vaccines has been challenging, but the clinic has managed to waste very few doses due to expiration.

“Boosters will be administered right alongside our ongoing COVID-19 vaccination program, we’ll just be seeing some folks back for a third visit,” Bearden said. “Our stance has been and will continue to be that the COVID pandemic isn’t just a tribal, county, state or national problem. It would do us little good to limit our COVID vaccination and COVID testing to just tribal members, if the folks that they work with, go to school with, and worship with are still susceptible. The healthier our communities are, the healthier our tribes are.”

In other parts of the country like Phoenix, Arizona, urban clinics are also taking note of the federal guidelines for getting booster shots into arms.

Native Health Phoenix’s community Native Health relations director Susan Levy said the program will provide booster vaccines to immunocompromised individuals beginning the week of Sept. 20 pending CDC and FDA approval.

“Native Health continues to work within the community at American Indian community events, schools, as well as stand up clinics at Native Health Central and Native Health Mesa, (on) evenings and weekends for the convenience of the community,” said Levy.

One Blackfeet tribal citizen, Marietta Green, said she doesn’t think she will get her booster shot at all. Another, Ernest Olson, received his two doses of Moderna earlier this year but is questioning whether he will get the booster shot.

“I've been getting shots for 70 years,” Olson said. “I have always been under the impression that I needed the shots to protect me from a disease. Now we are having a political discussion over the vaccinations because medical is considered a commodity. For the first time in my life, I’m very concerned whether this booster shot is for me or if it’s for the one percent. We, the Indigenous people, are considered a liability already so it’s a very tough decision.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.