Tribes are working together to vaccinate students

While the Pfizer vaccine has proven difficult to manage in the past, tribes are now collaborating as they attempt to get their youth vaccinated.

Urijah Woodward, 12, receives his vaccine from Barbara Hoffman, a community health nurse for the Suquamish Tribe, at a youth COVID-19 vaccination clinic run by the Port Gamble S'Klallam and the Suquamish tribes at the PGST Elder Center in Kingston, May 26, 2021. All youth received the Pfizer vaccine, which the Food and Drug Administration has approved for minors 12 and older. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

When 18-year-old Ah-nika-leesh Chiquiti (Suquamish) got her first dose of the Moderna vaccine in January, she was one of few in her family. Some were still anxious at the prospect of receiving technology they perceived as new. She felt similarly anxious, but her desire to protect the grandparents she lives with overruled those fears.

“My main focus was just like not bringing COVID back into my home,” says Chiquiti. “I was kind of nervous, but I knew I was doing the right thing.” 

Since then, she’s been a vaccine resource for her extended family. Cousins, siblings and even friends have approached her with their concerns. She has reassured them by sharing her own experience, sharing her experiences with the vaccine’s side effects and telling them what else to expect. 

But at school, she still sees a risk. Chiquiti, a senior at Chief Kitsap Academy in Poulsbo, says many younger students at her school could not receive the vaccine because of age restrictions. As someone who plays basketball and volleyball for her school, she was anxious that so many of the peers she saw regularly were unvaccinated — especially since that left her 12-year-old brother, who also plays sports through his school, vulnerable.  

“That's one thing that I know my grandma was really worried about [was] my younger brother being around a bunch of unvaccinated kids,” she says. 

Two students waiting in chairs for vaccine
Norah McFeat, 14, and Cambell Brown, 14, sit in a waiting area after receiving their vaccinations at a youth vaccination clinic run by the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe  and the Suquamish Tribe at the PGST Elder Center in Kingston, May 26, 2021. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

 

On May 10, Pfizer became the first vaccine approved for those ages 12 to 15. Tribes acted quickly: On May 17, both the Suquamish and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes hosted a joint clinic to vaccinate young people — Native and non-Native alike — in their area. Of the 300 vaccines the tribes had ready to use that day, they ended up vaccinating 136 people. Chiquiti’s younger brother was among those vaccinated in the past week.

“Kids being out of school or on a hybrid schedule has been a real hardship for many families, trying to balance work and the struggles of online learning and the chaos of this type of schedule,” says Jolene Sullivan (Port Gamble S’Klallam), who is her tribe’s health services director. “Getting our kids vaccinated helps us get a little closer to some kind of normal school setting for them in the fall.”

Sullivan says the tribes organized the youth clinic so quickly that they didn’t have time to alert schools in the area. They plan to do that in weeks to come, which she is certain will boost the number of vaccinated youth in the area even further. 

“We have lots of families in this end of the county who … have been anxiously awaiting the clinic for their kids,” she says. “This week will give us the time to reach out even more.” 

For many tribes throughout Washington, the Pfizer vaccine was previously hard to access. Michelle Roberts, assistant secretary of the State Department of Health's Prevention and Community Health Division, says the Pfizer vaccine’s ultra-cold storage requirements call for freezers that many smaller and rural tribes don’t have access to. She also says the typical 1,000-dose shipments can be an overwhelming amount for smaller communities to dole out efficiently.

“That’s been a challenge all along,” Roberts says. “When we’re talking about smaller clinics or smaller populations being served, a thousand doses are a lot of vaccines, [especially] if you don’t have the storage space or right equipment.”  

Melissa Hill draws a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a youth COVID-19 vaccination clinic run by the Port Gamble S'Klallam and the Suquamish tribes at the PGST Elder Center in Kingston, May 26, 2021. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

Melissa Hill draws a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a youth COVID-19 vaccination clinic run by the Port Gamble S'Klallam and the Suquamish tribes at the PGST Elder Center in Kingston, May 26, 2021. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

While smaller order sizes will become available in upcoming weeks, tribes have worked together to overcome these issues in the meantime. Some tribes that have ultracold storage capacity have volunteered to receive vaccine shipments, allowing other tribes to pick up the vaccines through them directly. Tribes have also split up large vaccine shipments among themselves in order to make the amount easier to handle. 

Sullivan says that in her area, the Suquamish Tribe was best equipped to store the Pfizer vaccine. The Port Gamble S’Klallam partnered with the Suquamish, who accepted the doses for her tribe from the county and held on to them until it was time to thaw and prepare the vaccines for the youth clinic. 

“We partnered together by saying we both have youth,” says Cherrie May (Suquamish), the emergency management manager of the Suquamish Tribe. “Let's coordinate together to get both of our youth done at the same time, and open it up to the general community — because children will go to school together, they all play sports together, so let’s open it up to as many as we can.” 

Alena George, community health representative supervisor with the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe, looks over at Urijah Woodward, 12, as he waits for 15 minutes after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, May 26, 2021. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

Alena George, community health representative supervisor with the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe, looks over at Urijah Woodward, 12, as he waits for 15 minutes after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, May 26, 2021. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

So far, Sullivan says most of the youth who have been vaccinated are children of parents who supported the vaccine. As news of the wider availability of Pfizer spreads, she hopes to encourage parents who haven’t yet been vaccinated to follow suit. It’s been a difficult year for tribes, she adds, as they’ve been more isolated from each other than ever. Typically, intertribal youth come together for school sports. That has been difficult this past year. 

“These vaccines help us to get back to where we’re all gathering with other tribes,” she says. “We’ve been pretty self-isolating to protect ourselves. We’re anxious to get back together again, watch our kids play sports again, and helping our kids get vaccinated helps us get back to that even sooner.” 

Chiquiti says she’s excited to see family and friends at sporting events again. Right now, most of the basketball games she takes part in limit guests in order to maintain social distancing. She hopes vaccinations will help bring her team and her family closer to normalcy.

“It's definitely important to me and my family, because we do have a lot of younger cousins,” she says. “But I think it’s making me feel more safe, definitely at school and playing sports.”