Tribal health providers working to build on Kansas vaccination successes

By: - September 23, 2021 2:20 pm

While the Kansas adult population of Indigenous people vaccinated is outpacing state totals, tribal health providers are looking to build on their successes in eligible school age children and young adults. (Getty Images/Javier Zayas Photography)

TOPEKA — In light of data showing Indigenous people are more likely to contract COVID-19, tribal health leaders are working toward further successes in vaccinating native populations.

Federal data shows American Indians and Alaska Natives are 3.5 times more likely to be infected than their white counterparts. In response, health advocates have made a concerted push to ensure this at-risk group receives equitable vaccine and pandemic services. 

Thus far, about 56.4% of the total Native American population in Kansas has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, just under the statewide vaccination rate of 56.6%. However, among the adult population, Indigenous people outpace the statewide adult population 72.8% to 69.7%

Data presented by the Oklahoma City Area Indian Health Service, which serves tribes in Kansas, shows great success in vaccinating those ages 55 and up and moderate success among those 35-54. Youth and young adult vaccination rates have lagged.

“We always want to reach younger populations … because we know that there’s a lot of risk going on in the school systems right now with outbreaks,” said Tara Nolan, the community health manager at Hunter Health in Wichita. “The 18- to 24-year-old group and the 25- to 34-year-old group were the least likely to follow up with their second dose and complete that vaccination round, so we can always do more education on the necessity of that with them.”

Nolan, along with a representative of the Oklahoma City Area IHS, presented Wednesday on successes and next steps in addressing COVID-19 within Indigenous communities to the state COVID-19 Equity Task Force. These Indigenous health providers focused on the importance of community partnership efforts to overcome misinformation, mistrust and a complex tribal system.

For example, Nolan highlighted efforts through the Native American Community Resource Coalition and the Mid-America All-Indian Museum to host an informational event for Native American households. She said distrust of the government and being used as guinea pigs is a common concern among some groups, but the event sought to provide factual information about the vaccine and the intentions of health officials.

Vaccines were available to those who attended, Nolan said. 

Rear Admiral Travis Watts, who runs the IHS region that includes Kansas, Oklahoma and parts of Texas, told the task force they put communication lines built with local partners “on steroids” during the pandemic. 

“Those long-established and trusted partnerships are really what has allowed us to be successful in the area of vaccination processes and treatment during the pandemic,” Watts said. “It’s taken everybody to work during the pandemic. When we have lacked a resource or lacked an ability to support a function with the tribes, these groups have stepped in and done an amazing job.”

Watts praised tribal leaders for their efforts to combat disinformation campaigns against the COVID-19 vaccine.

An April report from the Kaiser Family Foundation credited tribal leadership with addressing the historic tensions between government institutions and Indigenous communities. The report found American Indians and Alaska Natives have a disproportionately high rate of vaccinations.

“The high vaccination rate among AIAN people largely reflects Tribal leadership in implementing vaccine prioritization and distribution strategies that meet the preferences and needs of their communities,” the report said.

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.