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Health officials try to rebuild trust of vaccines among Indigenous Americans

Native Americans have been among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, but a history of medical mistreatment has led some Indigenous leaders to brace for challenges in vaccinating their communities. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on those efforts.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Native Americans have been among the hardest-hit by COVID-19, but a history of medical mistreatment led some indigenous leaders to brace for challenges in vaccinating their communities.

    Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on those efforts.

  • Fred De Sam Lazaro:

    On a frigid morning in Minneapolis, a sign of progress in the fight against COVID-19. Inside a former Dollar Tree store, residents waited for doses of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine.

  • Woman:

    Friday for your second dose.

  • Fred De Sam Lazaro:

    The effort was run by the Native American Community Clinic, which serves thousands of indigenous people in the area.

    Although Native lands are predominantly in very remote settings, the majority of Native peoples in the United States actually lives in cities. This South Minneapolis neighborhood has one of the densest urban Native populations, and there's a concerted effort to vaccinate the elderly.

    People like 67-year-old Elsie Budreau, an enrolled member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. She's spent most of her life going back and forth between Minneapolis and the reservation in Northern Minnesota, that is, until the pandemic hit.

  • Elsie Budbreau:

    Everybody's kind of keeping to themselves, which is very hard, because, in the Native community, you share a lot with your family, and that hasn't been able to happen.

  • Fred De Sam Lazaro:

    So, when Budreau found out she could get the vaccine, she leapt at the opportunity.

  • Elsie Budbreau:

    I'm, like everybody else, kind of scared of it, but my own common sense tells me that it's safe to get it and it's going to help end the pandemic.

  • Fred De Sam Lazaro:

    Nationwide, indigenous people have experienced the highest death rate from COVID-19, nearly twice the rate of white Americans. That's partly because Native people have higher incidence of diabetes, heart disease and asthma, conditions related to poverty that can exacerbate a coronavirus infection.

    Antony Stately is the executive director of the Native American Community Clinic, or NACC.

  • Antony Stately:

    Establishing herd immunity, getting 70 percent to 80 percent of our population vaccinated, is going to be really, really important.

    Many communities are losing their elders. Those are the people that hold the knowledge of our culture and our language, things that are really important to us, that are as important to our health and well-being as is medicine, as is food, as is water and all those other things.

  • Fred De Sam Lazaro:

    Stately has tried to spread the word about the vaccine on a Native American radio show.

  • Antony Stately:

    The difference between taking the vaccine and not taking the vaccine at all is that, if you take the vaccine, you have some percentage of chance of being immune to it or to have some protection.

  • Fred De Sam Lazaro:

    It's personal for stately, who was hospitalized with COVID.

  • Antony Stately:

    The first night I got there, I just cried, because it sort of hit me like a ton of bricks that I had to say goodbye to my children. I didn't know if I was going to get home.

  • Fred De Sam Lazaro:

    At the end of December, NACC held a small ceremony when it vaccinated its first group of community elders, hoping to infuse the medicine with good spirit and protect their people.

    But, for Stately, the vaccination push comes with a challenge.

  • Antony Stately:

    Native people, we have this long history of not being very treated very well by the medical establishment and the research community.

    And so I expected that elder people would be ambivalent about accepting the vaccine.

  • Fred De Sam Lazaro:

    That describes Stately's cousin Roxanne Flammond, who stopped by for a visit.

  • Roxanne Flammond:

    I'm going to Phoenix.

  • Antony Stately:

    You are? Dang, in the middle of a pandemic, no less. How are you going to pull that off?

  • Roxanne Flammond:

    I'm going to wear two masks and a shield.

  • Antony Stately:

    So, you don't think you might want to take the vaccine before you go?

  • Roxanne Flammond:

    No. No, that's not going to happen.

  • Fred De Sam Lazaro:

    Flammond, who's 67 and has underlying health conditions, is concerned about having an allergic reaction to the shot, a side effect seen in a relatively small number of cases with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

  • Roxanne Flammond:

    In the beginning, I had conspiracy theories.

  • Antony Stately:

    I know. I heard…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Roxanne Flammond:

    And I said, I'm going to wait until everybody — to see what everybody else does. And if they're dropping like flies, I'm not getting it, but also the fact that our — historically, the government has not really treated our people fairly.

  • Antony Stately:

    That's true. That's true.

  • Fred De Sam Lazaro:

    In the 1970s, the federal Indian Health Service sterilized thousands of indigenous women without their permission or after coercing them.

    Roxanne Flammond says she was one of those women.

  • Roxanne Flammond:

    I was coerced into signing papers to be sterilized. And I didn't know. I was 19. I believed what the doctor said.

  • Fred De Sam Lazaro:

    The history also includes the abuse of Native Americans in scientific research and it dates all the way back to the 1700s, when British colonizers gave tribes blankets contaminated with smallpox.

    So, when Flammond first heard about the COVID vaccines?

  • Roxanne Flammond:

    I was like, well, is this another smallpox-infested blanket, just in a different form?

  • Fred De Sam Lazaro:

    For providers in indigenous communities, a big task now is convincing patients that the government's response this time is appropriate.

    Dr. Mary Owen is President of the Association of American Indian Physicians.

  • Dr. Mary Owen:

    We recognize, as Native physicians, the degree of distrust in our communities. And we recognize the reasons for them, most of us having lived in and continuing to work in our communities.

    However, it is so important that people recognize that we are dying at much higher numbers, and the government is actually getting this one right by getting us the vaccine, as they should be. So, in order to continue to protect our communities that are dying, our community members who are dying at disproportionate amounts, we have to take this vaccine up.

  • Fred De Sam Lazaro:

    The effort from Owen and others may be working.

    A recent survey by the Urban Indian Health Institute found 75 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives are willing to get the vaccine. Encouraging as that acceptance is, the challenge, as in so many other communities, will continue to be getting enough vaccine, and getting it across the vast, varied landscape of Indian country.

    Meantime, Antony Stately was relieved to learn that, by the end of their short meeting, his cousin was considering taking a shot, but Roxanne Flammond insisted she was going to wait a few more weeks.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Fred de Sam Lazaro in Minneapolis.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fred's reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

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