Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Twelve-year-old Elias Komulainen was first in line to get his vaccination at the regional tribal health organization in western Alaska Thursday morning. His mother, a physician assistant, went with him.

“I’m so thankful to get my child vaccinated. This will protect him and help get our lives back to normal,” said his mother, Anne Komulainen who works at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation in a statement released by the health corporation.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky announced in a written statement Wednesday night: “CDC now recommends that [the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine] be used among this [12-to-15 year old] population, and providers may begin vaccinating them right away.”

Dr. Mary Owen, Tlingit, is the president of the Association of American Indian Physicians and director of the University of Minnesota Center of American Indian and Minority Health. “We have been actively promoting [the vaccinations] in our communities through media, a social media campaign and a PSA campaign. Whenever we have the opportunity to get in front of our communities, we push the use of the vaccine,” Owen said.

Early in the pandemic it was believed children and youth don’t become as seriously ill from COVID-19 as adults.

“That's not the case,” Owen said. “We have some young people who've gotten very sick. If you remember, at the beginning of the pandemic, we had strange cases of inflammatory disorders affecting kids long after they'd been infected. When we didn't even always know they had been affected. So children can get very, very sick from this virus.”

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon has seen a rise in COVID-19 cases among school children, prompting officials to schedule more vaccination clinics and cancel events.

The tribes reported on Wednesday that 14 people had tested positive for COVID-19 on the reservation over the past two weeks, The East Oregonian reported.

Tribal officials said the outbreak came after six weeks without one case reported among tribal members and patients eligible for care at Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center. The 12 children who have the illness reportedly experienced symptoms and one adult was hospitalized in the outbreak, officials said.

"The virus is spreading among our youth and we need to respond immediately," Lisa Guzman, Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center chief executive officer, said while announcing a Saturday vaccination clinic for those ages 12 to 15.

Wildhorse Resort & Casino announced Thursday that the annual Wildhorse Pow Wow set for early July would be canceled for the second year because of rising cases and risk of local spread with people coming from around the country.

The new cases brought total active COVID-19 cases on the reservation to 17, making it one of the sharpest upticks reported on the reservation since 19 cases were reported in a week in December, according to data on the tribes' website.

Yellowhawk officials attempting to trace the outbreak have been met with reluctance from residents, officials said.

Since the pandemic began, tribal health officials have reported 271 COVID-19 cases, 13 hospitalizations and one death, officials said.

The CDC had approved people aged 16 and up in December. Tribal and Indian Health Service health care providers had been preparing for weeks for the day when they could begin vaccinating younger age groups.

A pedestrian walk past Pfizer world headquarters, Monday Nov. 9, 2020, in New York. Pfizer says an early peek at its vaccine data suggests the shots may be 90% effective at preventing COVID-19, but it doesn't mean a vaccine is imminent. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

The Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa Tribe of Chippewa Indians opened registration for 12 to 15 year olds on May 5. The tribe’s health division said the registration information “will help determine the level of interest in a COVID-19 vaccination for youth and assist in planning future mass vaccination events.”

In Nome, Alaska, the regional tribal health organization had parents fill out a consent form and review a fact sheet. Norton Sound Health Corporation wrote in a statement that “vaccinating children is seen as crucial to ending the pandemic and returning to normalcy. This region is more likely to reach herd immunity once children are vaccinated against COVID-19.

“The organization is aiming for 70 to 80 percent herd immunity for the entire region, including those under 16 years of age. So far 58 percent of the population has been vaccinated. “The region is 12-22 percent away from meeting the herd immunity goal, when things may safely reopen and return to normal,” stated the tribal health organization.

The 12-15 year olds will get the same dose on the same schedule as for 16 and older.

However, Dr. Owen said physicians have been seeing less uptake of the vaccines. She said parents holding back from getting vaccinated also may be reticent for their children to get vaccinated.

“But it's so important that we remind people of the toll that this vaccine has done on our communities at large, in some people who are really vulnerable,” she said. “And we have plenty of them in our communities.”

She said the history of healthcare for Native Americans has been good cause for skepticism. “There are still a significant number of people who have a mistrust of our healthcare systems for good reasons. You know, it hasn't always been the most honest, most transparent, and some things have worked against us in history...”

“People’s questions and concerns are legitimate,” Owen said. “They need truthful answers. And my experience is that when you're able to get them that truth, answer their questions in an honest way, then we get some more buy-in. But the key is getting in front of people and it is, and it is on us as healthcare providers as well,” Owen said.

“I think there are plenty of people who have not yet heard the message [about the safety and importance of getting vaccinated]. So the key is on us [health care providers] to make sure that we're getting in front of everybody, that we take any opportunity we can, talking it through, answering questions.

“As Native people, we've known forever that one of our strengths has been our ability to hold each other up and watch out for one another. This is one of those times when we're calling on that tradition. Let's hold each other up and protect our communities.”

Tests show the vaccine is 100 percent effective in 12-to-15 year olds.

Children earlier made up 3 percent of new cases. Youth below the age of 18 now make up 22.4 percent of new cases, in part because older people have high rates of vaccinations, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The CDC’s approval of vaccination of youth expands the pool of eligible vaccine recipients to about 87 percent of the total U.S. population.

Tests, however, showed the vaccine is even more effective in 12-to-15 year olds than 16 and up. In the younger adolescent group, effectiveness was 100 percent, compared to 96 percent for adults.

The President of the Navajo Nation, Jonathan Nez, also got his 13-year-old son in for a Pfizer shot right away at the Gallup Indian Medical Center vaccination site on Thursday.

“This is an opportunity for families to receive the vaccine together, if adults have not done so already. The vaccines are effective and they are key to overcoming this pandemic. Community immunity is our goal here on the Navajo Nation,” he said. “Please continue to wear masks, get vaccinated, practice social distancing, wash your hands often, and avoid large in-person gatherings.”

As the vaccination prompts the body to begin creating antibodies to fight off the disease, people can have side effects, including pain at the injection site, fatigue, headaches, chills and joint and muscle pain as well as fever.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.