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Public Health

Reno-Sparks Tribal Health Center Administers First Round Of COVID-19 Vaccine

The Reno-Sparks Tribal Health Center was the first to provide COVID-19 vaccinations for tribal members in northern Nevada, alongside some of the facility’s frontline health care workers, on Wednesday.

Several people getting their vaccines were separated by plexiglass at the Reno-Sparks Tribal Health Center. It was clear there was an air of excitement among the group.

“I just felt like I needed to be an example to the community, to show that there really isn’t anything to be afraid of,” Cordelia Abel-Johnson said.

“Not everybody’s willing to do it right now, and we’re going to be working on trying to educate them about getting the vaccine,” Elvin Willie said.

“To be one of the first ones, you know, to just lead the way, I guess,” Hank Johnson said.

These three individuals got one of the initial 50 doses available at the health center. The Pfizer vaccine allotment came from the Indian Health Service, the federal agency responsible for providing public health services to Native American tribes.

A woman in a mask with a stethoscope around her neck is getting a shot in her left arm by a woman in turquoise scrubs with her back to the camera.
Credit Lucia Starbuck / KUNR Public Radio
Dr. Gayathri Natarajan was among the first to be vaccinated at the Reno-Sparks Tribal Health Center in Reno, Nev., on Wednesday, Dec. 16.

Dr. Gayathri Natarajan also received a shot.

“I was waiting for the vaccine to come out so that we can vaccinate the community and go back to normal. So this means a lot,” Natarajan said.

She’s been caring for COVID-19 patients for the last nine months.

“Since March, we’ve been working tirelessly. Our operations are all modified: We have to see patients with PPE, see them in their cars and do more telehealth visits. It was not the optimal health care,” Natarajan said.

Since the vaccine likely won’t be available to the general public until late spring, Natarajan said it’s critical people keep up with safety measures.

“We see people dying, people on oxygen after getting COVID. To say that it’s very hard, you know, I would encourage them to come and be in my shoes one day, and see how hard it is to see people losing their loved ones because of COVID,” Natarajan said.

Arlan Melendez is the tribal chairman for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. He’s glad the vaccine has finally arrived.

“This gives us hope as we come out of this dark period of time, you know, of the COVID disease. It gives our people a lot of hope, protecting our elders, protecting our children,” Melendez said.

Since the start of the pandemic, about a quarter of the more than 1,000 members of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony have tested positive for COVID-19. This community has many homes with extended families living under one roof. These types of households make it more difficult to isolate when someone is sick, putting other family members at a higher risk.

“We’re so communal and trying to, you know, telling people that they can’t be with their families at this time for native communities is extremely hard. We also have multi-generational homes here, so that’s also a challenge,” Bethany Sam, the spokesperson for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, said.

Despite the immunity that the vaccine provides, Sam said gaining trust from the community can be a hurdle. She said she’s worried there might be hesitancy due to the history of systemic oppression of American Indians by the federal government.

“With the vaccine coming on now, we have historical trauma from our past that make tribal members very reluctant to get the vaccine, so that’s going to be one of our challenges that we’re going to have to overcome as the vaccines are administered,” Sam said.

Sam said she has her work cut out for her. What she plans to do next is connect tribal members with the right tools, like accurate information about the vaccine.

Lucia Starbuck is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

Support Lucia's Report for America reporting. Headshot of Lucia Starbuck. She is sitting in the KUNR newsroom and smiling.

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