Tanzina Vega: Back with you on The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega. All this month, we've been checking in with leaders from around the country to get a sense of how vaccine distribution is going at the local level. Tribal nations and their members have been some of the hardest-hit communities during the pandemic and Indigenous people are four times as likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19 than white people, and more than two and a half times as likely to die from the virus. That's according to data from the CDC.
Now, particularly for tribes in rural areas, distributing COVID-19 vaccines can present an extensive set of logistical challenges. Today we're checking in on vaccine distribution for the Cherokee Nation and the more than 140,000 citizens who live within the tribe's reservation boundaries. Cherokee Nation Principal, Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. is with me now. Thanks for joining me, Chief Hoskin.
Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.: Good to be with you Tanzina.
Tanzina: Tell me how many vaccines has the Cherokee Nation received so far and have you been able to administer all the ones you've gotten?
Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.: We are on a good pace as far as administering what we've got. We expect that about 10,000 vaccines administered this week at the rate we were going. Honestly, I think our system is going efficiently. My concern is just will the government of the United States keep up with the Cherokee Nation?
Tanzina: Give us a sense of how that rollout is going, because as we've been following on this show, there are a patchwork, if you will, of success and not so successful vaccine rollouts across the country. The Tulsa World newspaper reported that your tribe has already moved into scheduling teachers, childcare workers and people 55 and over. How's that going?
Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.: It's going good as we moved into that space. One of the advantages that I think we have is that we are a government and we're a society that believes that healthcare ought to be something everybody gets. When you have that mindset and you develop a system and develop an infrastructure to deliver that kind of health care, it's not that we're infallible, but I think it shows that it's a high priority. Then when pandemic hits, we are braced for it and prepared for it as best we can. When something like a vaccine rollout hits, we do have the facilities in place to do that and so it's gone well.
One of the things that we have to deal with, that every government has to deal with, every health authority, is the different kinds of vaccines. We have a largely rural population. We have the large health campus that we can administer the Pfizer because we have the capabilities in terms of the cooling requirements. Out in the outline communities, Moderna is a little easier to use, but of course, you don't know what your supplies are going to be for those two. That I think impacts our ability to get some of the more rural areas, the outlying areas, but far so good.
Tanzina: You've mentioned that you are looking to see if the government can keep up with the Cherokee Nation. What are you needing right now?
Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.: There's a variety of things. We want to make sure that we have the steady, consistent, reliable supply of vaccine because, again, our system is running well. Our system for vaccine administration includes reaching out to our patient population. We have the largest health system in all of Indian country. We've reached out directly to those patients based on where they are in the phasing plan. Then we have a place for them to call in. That's gone very efficiently, but we want to make sure that the vaccines keep up.
I think just like any governor will tell you and your local health authority will tell you, that if we see any slowdown in the distribution of the vaccine, then our best plans don't matter much. I think so far so good for us. I think what I hear out of the Indian health service lately, it gives me confidence that they're going to keep up with the Cherokee Nation. On the vaccine front, that's what we need, but of course, there's a whole host of things that jurisdictions across the country need to deal with COVID-19 further response, which means further resources and we have to recover at the same time.
Tanzina: What are you seeing is needed right now?
Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.: I think across Indian country, supply's the most important thing, but one thing we have to remember is even though vaccine distribution is the most noteworthy thing lately, there still has to be an ongoing public health effort to keep people safe. Having consistent messaging out of the government of the United States about public health, that's as important now as it was before the vaccine came out because it's still our best defense against this vaccine. I'm talking about wearing masks and social distancing.
I can tell you as a tribal leader who has done the same thing that many travel leaders has done, which is let science drive our decision-making, to hear a consistent message out of the White House, out of federal officials, is refreshing. I can't emphasize enough how important that is when we're on the front lines trying to send that message and to have that back up out of Washington DC. That's important.
We also need further resources to continue to address the impact of COVID on our communities. That can be infrastructure impact because our budgets have dwindled; because our revenues have dwindled from some of our business activities such as gaming. It can also mean other healthcare resources, just so we can keep up with what we need done.
There's some parts in Indian country that I think many people in this country would be shocked and appalled that still exists. Some parts of Indian country with no running water, which makes it difficult in good times, certainly during a pandemic that's not the case with Cherokee Nation, but it is the case in some parts of Indian country. I think this ought to be a wake-up call for this country in terms of making sure that reservations tribes across the country have even the basic things that most Americans take for granted.
Tanzina: One of the things that communities of color, particularly Black, Latino, and Native communities have is somewhat of a mistrust of the US medical system because of the history of discriminatory and racist, treatments and experiments that have been conducted on these communities. What work has your government done to combat vaccine skepticism?
Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.: One thing that it's important to understand about how medicine, how healthcare is delivered in Indian countries is that it varies from tribe to tribe and it has changed over time. Cherokee Nation is an example of a tribe that because of the resources we've been able to amass through our own business activities, gaming, and whatnot, we have really taken control of our healthcare destiny. I was born in 1975 in the Claremore, Oklahoma Indian Hospital, a federal installation, and the federal government tries it. MIOT has not delivered health care directly very good to Native Americans across the country. I'm talking in broad terms, certainly there are exceptions.
When Cherokee Nation began to develop resources, we started to take control of health care. Even though we still hold the government of the United States accountable for dollars for resources, we manage our healthcare system. I think we do it better than anyone in the country, but that doesn't mean that there's not lingering distrust about healthcare among our people, I think particularly among an older generation of Cherokees, but I do think it makes a difference if tribes are able to, again, control their own destiny when it comes to healthcare as we have done, and that builds confidence.
It makes a difference when you walk into a healthcare facility and you see people, people you consider to be family even if they're very extended family because you know this is your government, the Cherokee Nation operating this healthcare system. I think had COVID hit a few generations ago, it would be a different story than it is today. I think we're better off today because Cherokee Nation operates its own healthcare system by and large.
Tanzina: Cherokee Nation while you have kept coronavirus cases and deaths relatively low at a very difficult moment during the pandemic, the tribe has seen a spike in cases. What do you think accounts for that as we're seeing similar spikes across the country?
Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.: Absolutely. Just overall, we've had over 13,000 positive cases just in our health system and 82 deaths, and it is true that we've fared better than many parts of the country and even fared better, I think, than other parts of Oklahoma. The fact is we don't live on an island and as the virus spreads, as people start to have the T go over protecting themselves and others against the virus, as Thanksgiving and Christmas comes along and of course Cherokee people, like a lot of Native peoples across the country, very much gather on a regular basis with extended family and friends.
That of course is the worst thing you can do during the worst public health crisis, the worst pandemic in living memory. All of those things I think have conspired to increase the numbers. I worry about all of our people, but I'm particularly jarred by this statistic, which is that we've lost over 30 fluent speakers and we only have about 2,000 fluent speakers left. In addition to being a pandemic that steals lives away from our people, that takes away precious lives, it's also a way a precious resource that is dwindling, which is our language. That's another thing that weighs on us every day.
Tanzina: Does that mean that our Native speakers might be prioritized in the vaccine rollout because of that element that you're just describing?
Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.: Yes, that's exactly what we've done. I really would take you back to March of 2020 when we decided to shut down all of our gaming operations and really go into hunker-down mode as people were learning about this virus. I was sitting with our deputy chief and he said, "You know Chief, you just shut down all the casinos.
There's perishable foods in all those refrigerators, so let's get them out to our fluent speakers." We did more than that. We took our translators, our young people who are learning to speak Cherokee, we safely took that perishable food out to as many of our speakers as we could, and these are largely elders.
We also took and translated into Cherokee the best public health information that we had at the time. Really, it's been a continuum of protecting our speakers. Then when we got the vaccine, or when we anticipated getting it, we put fluent speakers at the top of the list and we've now vaccinated about 1,000 fluent speakers. That's about halfway to the total amount, but that is a great blessing because it means we protected a really precious resource.
Tanzina: Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. is the principal chief for the Cherokee Nation. Chief Hoskin, thank you for your time.
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