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'Hold Their Feet To the Fire': Getting A COVID-19 Vaccine To Hard-Hit Indian Country


The federal government's first batch of coronavirus vaccines will include a shipment to Indian Country. Native Americans are four times as likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19. But as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, reaching everyone who needs the vaccine will be a major challenge.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: These last few days have been chaotic at the Nimiipuu Health Clinic on the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho. The director, R. Kim Hartwig, is trying to manage testing and treating patients for COVID and other diseases while also racing to get a plan in place to distribute a vaccine.

R KIM HARTWIG: It's not something that we have and have a timeline. It's like, OK, I got a call and was told, OK, you're going to get vaccine in two weeks. Get a plan together.

SIEGLER: Only a handful of her frontline workers are expected to get the initial Pfizer vaccine because the tribe doesn't have the special refrigeration and storage it requires. But Hartwig is OK with waiting a few more weeks for the expected second vaccine that doesn't need that. When it's in, she can start vaccinating elders and the rest of the tribe.

HARTWIG: We should feel fortunate that we have the opportunity to, you know, get vaccine in Lapwai, Idaho. I mean, we have a town of a thousand people in rural Idaho in the middle of the Nez Perce reservation.

SIEGLER: The tribes had the option of getting the vaccine shipments from their state or the Indian Health Service. More than half of the 574 federally recognized tribes are doing what the Nez Perce are - opting for the IHS - says Commander Andrea Klimo.

ANDREA KLIMO: We're treating this as any other challenge that we're faced with.

SIEGLER: A member of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, Klimo is leading the IHS task force in charge of distributing the vaccines.

KLIMO: We're tackling it head-on and working through things such as hesitancy or any sort of perceived trust issue.

SIEGLER: There will be a lot of scrutiny on the IHS as the vaccines get distributed. Congress has long underfunded Indian health care, and consequently, native people aren't always confident in the IHS to deliver. Rodney Bordeaux is the president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota.

RODNEY BORDEAUX: Well, we're going to hold their feet to the fire because it's their trusted responsibility. As the federal government, it's their treaty obligation, so we're going to hold their feet to the fire.

SIEGLER: If the IHS fails to distribute the vaccine as planned, Bordeaux says hopefully Congress will provide another round of stimulus as a backup. Already, CARES Act funds helped pay for mobile units that his tribe will use to deliver the vaccine to communities across its 2,000-square-mile reservation. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.