What 'all-hands-on-deck' looks like in Mille Lacs Band's COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Nora G. Hertel
St. Cloud Times

ONAMIA — Leana DeJesus drove about 100 miles to get her second COVID-19 vaccine shot on the Mille Lacs reservation in early February. 

Tribal elders and health care workers have been prioritized for vaccines by the Mille Lacs Band and across Native American communities. 

DeJesus drove herself and her older sister from the Twin Cities to the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe's new Ne-Ia-Shing Clinic for the vaccination. DeJesus, at 56, is considered a younger elder and was eligible for the vaccine along with her sister. 

Vaccines are important for community elders, DeJesus said. "They are vulnerable to the virus. To keep them around and healthy longer, I think that it's important that they get it."

The Mille Lacs Band had administered at least one dose of the vaccine to 561 band members and essential employees as of Feb. 9. The band has about 4,800 members, 56% of whom live in three Central Minnesota districts, with 18% in the Twin Cities metro.

American Indians and Alaska Natives make up a disproportionate number of the state's COVID-19 hospitalizations, according to state data. Those groups make up 1% of the state population and 2% of the COVID-19 patients in intensive care and total hospitalizations. Their case and death rates are 1% of the state's total. 

RELATED: Native American tribes receive COVID-19 vaccines, and health officials work to ease fears about taking it

RN Nicole Norveson checks a patient's vital signs during a COVID-19 vaccination clinic Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021, at the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe's Ne-Ia-Shing Clinic in Onamia.

'It was very stressful initially'

The tribe's Public Health Director, Lisa Blahosky-Olivarez, and her staff have been calling eligible members to come to the health center and get the vaccine. They started with a list of all enrolled members.

"It's a constant education. I can talk to 600 people in a week," Blahosky-Olivarez said. Many will ask to wait a week for their vaccine. Others will say they're ready and have been waiting for the call. 

Blahosky-Olivarez's team also did contract tracing when there were outbreaks and fielded questions about the virus and the vaccine. 

A sign is posted in one of the patient waiting areas during a COVID-19 vaccination clinic Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021, at the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe's Ne-Ia-Shing Clinic in Onamia.

"We have switched momentum," Blahosky-Olivarez said in early February. "I think we're feeling pretty good."

The tribe reported 150 cases of COVID-19 within its three districts as of Feb. 4. The total case count and death count is unknown, because band members are dispersed on and off the reservation. The community recently lost one of its leaders whose name was not shared to preserve their privacy. 

"It was very stressful initially, because we didn't know how this would affect us," said the Mille Lacs Band Commissioner of Health and Human Services Nicole Anderson. "We do know that Native American populations have a high rate of diabetes, heart disease and all the things that put you in a compromised immune system for COVID."

Leana DeJesus is given the COVID-19 vaccine by Donna Sutton during a vaccination clinic Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021, at the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe's Ne-Ia-Shing Clinic in Onamia.

Statewide, 87 American Indians and Alaska Natives have died from COVID-19. That doesn't include people who also identify as Hispanic or people with more than one racial heritage.

Minnesota's 11 tribes could choose to get vaccine supplies through the state government or through the federal Indian Health Services. The state had provided 11,300 first doses to seven tribes as of Feb. 1, according to a state information officer.  And the Bemidji Area Indian Health Service has distributed 14,650 vaccine doses to facilities in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, according to and IHS public affairs specialist on Thursday.

Kathy Nelson cleans an area used by patients during a COVID-19 vaccination clinic Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021, at the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe's Ne-Ia-Shing Clinic in Onamia.

COVID-19 vaccine calls for teamwork and hope

Anderson is hopeful about vaccine distribution and reopening parts of the community. 

The tribe moved into a new Health and Human Services building amid the pandemic last year. The building has striking architecture that compliments the surrounding landscape. And it is home to a pharmacy, dental services, clinic, administration and family services.

Next door is the Meshakwad Community Center, which was completed last year with a boxing ring and a splash pad. It will start opening to elders 55 and older this week. 

In early February, tribe chief executive Melanie Benjamin replaced the stay-at-home order with a stay-at-home recommendation.

Tribal Public Health Director Lisa Blahosky-Olivarez talks about steps taken to control the virus during a COVID-19 vaccination clinic Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021, at the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe's Ne-Ia-Shing Clinic in Onamia.

"We have lost people. And that's really hard for the community to take. But overall I think the band has done a good job ensuring that community members are taken care of," Anderson said. That has meant delivering food to elders and people in quarantine. It has also meant a 24-hour COVID-19 triage line staffed by a band employee. 

Clinic Manager Jenna Kuduk fields calls on all things COVID-19 and triages clinic patients. She can get between 20 and 40 calls a day. 

"It's a very busy line," Kuduk said. She's also involved with the vaccine rollout, along with public health, pharmacy and maintenance staff who come early and stay late to set up the vaccination space and keep it sanitized. 

"We really went with an all-hands-on-deck approach," Kuduk said. "We have come together as a staff community to make sure that we can deliver these vaccines to the community really efficiently."

The main entrance area of the Ne-la-Shing Clinic is pictured Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021, in Onamia.

When DeJesus arrived for her second shot, clinic staff checked her vitals. They gave her a shot in her arm. And after she waited to ensure she didn't have an adverse reaction, they cleared her to go. 

DeJesus gets her flu shot each year and appreciates the COVID-19 vaccine because she interacts with people as a realtor. 

"If it comes available, I'd recommend it," DeJesus said.

Nora Hertel is the government watchdog reporter for the St. Cloud Times. Reach her at 320-255-8746 or nhertel@stcloudtimes.com. Follow her on Twitter @nghertel.