Vaccine nurse
A nurse explains a reminder card for the second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine to a recipient. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press.

The demand for COVID-19 doses in North Carolina far exceeded supply, and the allocation by state officials created confusion and controversy. But one North Carolina population, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is managing the process independently.

When they learned of vaccine availability, staff from Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority and the tribe’s Public Health and Human Services Division created a vaccination committee, Principal Chief Richard Sneed said through statements and videos.

“The (tribe) is working tirelessly to provide the COVID-19 vaccine for all our enrolled members. In a survey taken in September-October, most people surveyed said that they would be willing to receive a vaccine, though most wanted to wait at least a few months,” Sneed said.

“Our team is striving to provide our entire community with the opportunity to immunize, and we are extremely optimistic about the overall state of the tribe’s health in relation to the virus.”

In December, the tribe received the first doses from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Indian Health Service, a major funding source for the hospital, and immediately began vaccinating front-line health care workers, Sneed said. 

Like the surrounding counties, the tribe had to contend with the deadly viral pandemic gripping the nation, killing more than 400,000 since it started about a year ago and infecting millions more.

As of Jan. 20, Public Health and Human Services reported nine deaths, six individuals currently hospitalized, 139 active cases and, since the tribe started keeping pandemic statistics, 1,142 positives with 994 having recovered. The tribe had to change operating schedules numerous times for its offices, and Cherokee Central Schools have been holding classes remotely.  

Hope in a dark time

Measures aimed at controlling the spread of virus hurt the tribe economically. With two casinos as economic drivers, the tribe is heavily dependent on tourism. The pandemic meant restricting entry points to residents and tribal members.

The tribe’s casinos were shuttered for about two months. As the borders reopened, allowing casinos and tourist attractions to open as well, the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths increased.

The availability of the two-dose vaccines gave new hope to the community in Qualla Boundary, where many people have underlying health conditions that make the virus more dangerous. 

Liz Oocumma’s mother, Jeannie Oocumma Driver, was the first tribal member to die from the pandemic in June at the age of 47.

Oocumma, a mother of one with another on the way, said it’s great to have these resources.

“I don’t think COVID is going away anytime soon. So, having this vaccination will help,” she said. “I’d do anything to keep my family safe.”

The tribe had administered 1,986 doses of the vaccine as of Jan. 26, according to Cherokee Indian Hospital Executive Medical Director Dr. Richard Bunio. Some of the doses administered have been second doses.

“Vaccine distribution is going very well. We are getting the vaccine into arms as fast as we are receiving it,” Bunio said. “We are only limited by the vaccine supply, which is a challenge across the country right now.”

Bunio asked for patience as health officials work to immunize the most vulnerable in the population first. He also stressed that, even among those vaccinated, it’s not time to stop taking precautions to help prevent the spread, like hand-washing, wearing masks and maintaining social distance.

“We have had several people become infected before the vaccine has had time to build immunity in their systems,” he said. “Even after the second dose, some 5% of people will still be susceptible to infection.”

There have been no reports of serious reactions to the vaccine, said Vickie Bradley, tribal secretary of Public Health and Human Services. But as with the hospital, her division has also contended with increasing rates of infection.

“We continue to deal with clusters of individuals that have attended gatherings. We continue to ask people to avoid gathering and practice the three W’s: wash, wait 6 feet apart and wear masks,” she said.

“We would encourage people to get their information from trusted sources.”

Prioritizing populations

The tribe’s vaccination plan is being carried out in three phases, having begun in December and continuing through the spring.

In the current first phase, priority is given to front-line health care workers, public safety workers, nursing home residents, Cherokee language speakers, people with Down syndrome, cancer patients undergoing treatment, and individuals 70 and older, with those 50 and older with high-risk health conditions getting priority.

In the second phase, the vaccine is given to individuals 40 and older, with those 18 and older with high-risk conditions getting priority.

In phase three, anyone in the remaining population who qualifies for Cherokee Indian Hospital services and nonbeneficiaries, like spouses of tribal members, provided they live on the Qualla Boundary or on additional tribal lands to the south in Graham or Cherokee counties, may receive the vaccine if the supply allows it. 

Peggy Hill qualified for the vaccine as a tribal senior citizen with high-risk health conditions. She was leery at first.

“It felt like a mosquito bite,” she said. “I expected more. I was surprised it was so easy.” Hill reported some chills and aches, but no serious reactions. 

Another tribal senior citizen, Joletta Crowe, said it was easy. Though her arm was sore a day later, she recommended everyone get the vaccine when they can, especially those with health problems. Age doesn’t matter. “It can get you,” she said.

Cherokee Indian Hospital public information officer Sheyahshe Littledave was also able to receive the vaccine.

“I felt that it was a responsibility not only to my family but as a tribal citizen,” she said. “Protecting our elders is incredibly important as they are the culture and language keepers of our tribe.”

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Joseph Martin is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer based in Murphy. Email to contact the Carolina Public Press news team.

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