On the Bois Forte Reservation, most health care providers and emergency personnel have received their first round of vaccinations. The tribal council just reported another week of zero new cases and no one in quarantine or isolation.
While Minnesota and much of the northeastern cities of the state are still struggling to contain the pandemic, life on the reservation has in recent weeks become more hopeful headed into the new year.
“I want to give a big shoutout to our community, whose been doing an awesome job, excellent job by keeping the virus out of our community and by doing the social distancing and masking and taking care of themselves and their family members,” Bois Forte Tribal Chairwoman Cathy Chavers said during a recorded update to the community on Tuesday. “We’re very fortunate to have no cases, especially as areas around us continue to have surges.”
The non-existent number of coronavirus cases on the reservation has made the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa an outlier in the region and state. Earlier this month, the band reported an annual total of 42 cases — 17 in Nett Lake and 25 in Vermilion. Health officials have reported zero new cases in the past several weeks.
The reservation, which has between 400 to 700 residents, spreads across both St. Louis and Koochiching counties, which are reporting a reduced yet a continued number of cases and deaths. For example, St. Louis County health officials reported 173 new cases and seven new deaths between Tuesday to Thursday, bringing the annual totals to 12,533 and 205 in 2020.
Despite showing signs of improvement, the Minnesota Health Department reported 2,019 cases and 66 deaths on Thursday, bringing the totals to 413,107 and 5,262, respectively. The Indian Health Services Office in Bemidji reported 8,232 positive cases on Thursday, with a seven-day rolling positivity average of 8.3 percent.
The Trump administration had originally set a goal of vaccinating 20 million Americans by the end of 2020, The Star Tribune reported. As of this week, 2.6 million doses have been given and 12.4 million doses have been distributed, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Minnesota public officials on Wednesday said they were planning to distribute the next wave of COVID-19 vaccinations to about 1 million essential workers and people over the age of 74. The state is still working on providing vaccines to people in the highest priority group, including 500,000 front-line health care workers and long-term care residents. It may take until the end of January to make sure people in that group receive the vaccine.
In Minnesota, at least six tribes have chosen to get the vaccine from IHS and five have opted to work with the state Health Department, according to Minnesota Public Radio. The IHS office in Bemidji, which serves tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, was the first of its kind in the nation to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Two weeks ago, a handful of health care workers in Cass Lake were the first IHS staffers — and among the first people anywhere in Minnesota — to be vaccinated. And about 120 employees were given their first of the two-dose vaccine that same week at the White Earth clinic.
The Bois Forte Band received their first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Tuesday, Dec. 15, Chavers previously said. By that Friday, at least 90 people on the reservation received a dose, including health care workers, emergency personnel and elders with underlying health conditions as determined by medical clinic physicians. (The shots would be given to people who choose to take them; no one will be forced to take the vaccine.) Most of the health care providers, emergency personnel and elders have received the first round of Pfizer shots and are now awaiting their second doses.
The band then received the second vaccine, developed by Moderna, on Wednesday, Dec. 23. But due to tribal government offices being closed for the holidays, the band is still in the process of distributing that vaccine to people on the reservation.
“[The Bois Forte Medical Clinic] does not have enough staff to speed up the vaccine distribution process. They continue to schedule appointments for regular patients as well,” Chavers said this week when reading a note from the clinic staff. “So, be patient with the vaccination timeline because the clinic can only do so many injections per day. The clinic is also doing COVID testing as well as providing routine medical care to patients.”
Clinic staff added, “Bois Forte is well ahead of many of the other tribes in the vaccine process and far ahead of the state of Minnesota and the rest of the U.S. Many people in the state and the U.S. will not have the opportunity to receive a COVID vaccine until mid-summer, which is June of 2021.”
During her recent update, Chavers provided members with information on the vaccines in hopes of distilling concerns or unanswered questions.
“Is the vaccine safe? The myth out there is that the COVID-19 vaccines are not safe because they were developed and tested too quickly,” she said when reading information from the clinic staff. “The fact is companies did not bypass any safety protocols or perform inadequate testing. The fact is that COVID-19 vaccines have been proven, are safe and are over 90 percent effective in preventing an infection.”
She continued, “COVID-19 vaccinations have severe side effects. That’s a myth. The fact is there are mild to short-term side effects and 15 percent of people have experienced irritation at the site of the injection. Half have a headache, chills, fatigue, muscle pain, fever lasting a day or two. But remember, that the side effects tell you that it’s working because you’re having an immune response.”
Chavers recommended that people with questions contact the clinic for additional information. She gave out the numbers for the Nett Lake and Vermilion clinics, which can be reached at 218-757-3650 and 218-753-2182, respectively.
On the cusp of the new year, she noted that the band was “very fortunate” the stimulus package had been signed by President Donald Trump, since it provides “much needed” funding for unemployment, rental assistance and child care. It does not provide specific funding to tribal governments, she added, and the band must now apply for grants through the federal package.
“It’s been an awful, awful year,” she continued. “We hope that the worst things are behind us and there’s new hope for us in the future with this vaccine and new hope with a new administration coming in january with new President Elect-Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. We have some positive things to look forward to.”