Wisconsin’s Indigenous population was hit hard by the pandemic: What we can learn from their vaccine rollout

MADISON, Wis.– Native American communities were among the first and hardest hit by COVID-19 when the pandemic began. Tribes including Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation, had some of the country’s highest per-capita death rates in 2020.

What a difference a year makes.

Now, the territory is leading the nation in vaccination rates and could be among the first in the U.S. to achieve herd immunity. Wisconsin-based tribes aren’t nearing that milestone just yet, but there is something we can all learn from their vaccine distribution efforts done right.

Since the pandemic started, members of Wisconsin’s Indigenous groups are 1.5 times more likely to die from COVID. Tribe members say it’s that fear, coupled with a community-first focus, that’s led to a successful vaccine rollout so far.

“If there are people talking about the vaccine within your community and giving you their trust, you’re more likely to get it,” explained Dr. Patricia Tellez-Giron, UW Health’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health Chair.

Members of Wisconsin’s 11 federally-recognized tribes often live in multi-generational households and are raised on the principle of putting others before themselves.

“With young people, they often don’t think about themselves, but when we talk to them about others they are more likely to be proactive about their health,” Dr. Giron said.

It’s this type of messaging that’s successfully convincing members of Wisconsin tribes to get their vaccines. Despite being harder to reach and farther from hospitals, about one-quarter of all Indigenous people are vaccinated. Most are getting their shots through tribal health centers: the primary care clinics within their communities, where trust is high.

Gail Nahwahquaw is a member of the Menominee tribe, 45 miles northwest of Green Bay. She is also the director of Wisconsin’s Office of Tribal Affairs.  Data initially ranked Menominee County #1 in the state for fastest vaccine distribution, but now, the tribe is experiencing vaccine hesitancy, similar to Dane County.

Nahwahquaw attributed that to many young tribe members, who are hesitant to get their shots.

“Tribes see the bigger picture and know they are an arm in healthcare,” she explained. “Like anyone else, they are working on their messaging.”

Click here for the latest information on where to get vaccinated in Wisconsin.