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Rocky Boy's Detail Successes, Challenges of COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout

A wooden sign inscribed "Welcome to the Rocky Boy's Reservation. Home of the Chippewa Cree" stands in a grass field.
Kaitlyn Nicholas
Yellowstone Public Radio
A sign welcomes visitors to Rocky Boy's Reservation.

We’ve previously reported that Native American tribes in Montana have some of the highest vaccination rates in the state. YPR News’ Kaitlyn Nicholas went to two tribal nations to report on how these vaccine rollouts have been so successful -- and what new challenges are emerging. Her first stop was a recent mass COVID-19 vaccine event on the Rocky Boy’s reservation.

In a large open room at Stone Child College, Rocky Boy Health Center is offering a mass vaccine clinic. At stations throughout the room, residents and workers in the area can check-in, learn about COVID-19 vaccines and possible side effects, get a shot from one of the nurses and are observed for 15 minutes to be sure they don’t have a negative reaction. The event is open to walk-ins so anyone who comes in can get their first or second dose.

Jasmine Dow, the health center’s Chief Medical Officer, says they saw a steady stream of people throughout the day.

“The people who are really interested in getting vaccines have gotten it. And now we're trying to reach that second wave of vaccines-maybes and vaccines-nos,” Dow said.

Kaitlyn Nicholas
Yellowstone Public Radio
Rocky Boy Health Center workers staff station at mass vaccine event at Stone Child College

As of Wednesday, over 50% of eligible Rocky Boy’s residents had received at least their first vaccine dose. 819 people are fully vaccinated.

What’s particularly notable about the Rocky Boy Health Center’s vaccine rollout is that the vaccine was made available to all area-residents much earlier than the rest of the state. Dow says health center workers now face the challenge of getting enough of the population vaccinated to achieve community protection.

“Some people have been afraid of the side effects like, oh, you know, they felt really bad and they miss work, things like that. And so we're trying to get people hyped up again,” Dow said.

Darman Trahant is waiting in the observation area after getting his shot. His eyes are closed tightly and his hands grip his chair.

“I'm just scared of like, having a bad reaction or if I'm just really sick,” Trahant said.

According to the CDC, vaccine side effects can include fatigue, arm pain, fevers and nausea.

Trahant says he’s getting the vaccine because his family wants him to.

Kaitlyn Nicholas
Yellowstone Public Radio
A nurse prepares patients to receive vaccine

Some of those waiting said they were getting the vaccine to protect their children, who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated. Others said they wanted to keep their Chippewa Cree elders and college teachers safe.

Jeremy Jones came in with his grandmother. They were given their shots, and then waited their fifteen minutes together. His grandmother didn’t want to be interviewed but couldn’t help chiming in when I asked Jones why he wanted the vaccine.

"He had to take it before I would take it."

"We had a deal," Jones chimes in.

"One of us wouldn't take it without the other one."

While the previous mass vaccine clinics drew between 200 and 400 people, only 47 came to the March clinic, most for their second dose. But Jacy Crowley, a registered nurse and the clinical nursing director of RBHC, says walk-in clinics are still allowing them to reach more people quickly.

“When we initially did the first kind of mass vaccine clinic, we weren't planning on necessarily doing a second one, but we found that the community likes this mode of getting it better. Just being able to walk in,” Crowley said.

The health center started offering mass vaccine clinics once a month and cut back appointment days from five to three days per week.

Kaitlyn Nicholas
Yellowstone Public Radio
Rocky Boy Health Center with COVID-19 vaccination sigh in front.

“We were really having difficulty getting groups of 10 so that we weren't wasting vaccine, or groups of six in,” Crowley said. “So, by cutting back a little bit, we're able to kind of get those clusters that we need to prevent wastage of the vaccine.

The Chippewa Cree of Rocky Boy’s were hard hit during the pandemic.

Between the end of March 2020 and the end of March 2021, the small community of about 5,000 saw 904 coronavirus cases. Thirteen people were hospitalized, and 10 of those died from the virus.

The tribe took swift action to curb the spread of COVID-19, enforcing lockdowns early on in the pandemic and the area is still under a mask mandate. RBHC has been distributing the vaccine since Dec. 23, and began offering it to all residents in mid-February, over six weeks before the state expanded vaccine eligibility to match.

“We have, you know, a lot of people who live in multi-generational homes. So we're not just protecting that elder in that home. We're also offering that protection to other people in the home who may be potentially the person who brings the virus in,” Crowley said.

A nurse places a bandage on patient's arm after receiving vaccine.
Kaitlyn Nicholas
Yellowstone Public Radio
A nurse places a bandage on patient's arm after receiving vaccine.

Crowley says clinic staff have focused on educating the community about vaccines to alleviate fear and concerns. Crowley and Kari Williams, RBHC’s pharmacy director, host Facebook question and answer videos.

Each Q&A session has over a thousand views.

Kari Williams says knowing the community closely also contributed to their efficiency along with the clinic’s freedom to adjust their rollout plan from week to week.

“Being a tribal health facility, we were basically able to design our own plan. We’ve had the liberty to come up with our own phases and decide who and when fit into that. So we worked with CDC guidance and federal guidance and then also, what was going to be best for our community and we're able to roll that out,” Williams said.

Chief Medical Officer Dow says she thinks many unvaccinated people are waiting for the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. While RBHC did receive 100 doses of those this week from the Billings-Area Indian Health Service, they also are getting more Pfizer vaccine, which is the only vaccine approved for 16- and 17-year-olds.

“We have a mobile unit that we've just outfitted. And we’re going out to schools because prom is coming up,” Dow said.

On one hand, Dow says it’s tough helping residents understand they still need to wear masks and socially distance after getting vaccinated, since not everyone is immunized. But on the other hand, students at the Rocky Boy’s and Box Elder schools will have the chance, for one day anyway, to just be normal teenagers.

“The local school here pushed their prom back to May 7, giving us time to vaccinate the kids so we'll be coming out there during the school days and vaccinating them to make sure they're safe for their events” Dow said.

Kaitlyn Nicholas covers tribal news in Montana.