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First COVID-19 vaccines administered on White Earth Reservation

The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was administered to 10 health care workers at White Earth Health Center, near Ogema, Minn., Tuesday with additional vaccinations occurring throughout the week to more

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Merlin Deegan Sr. performs a ceremonial blessing during a news conference Tuesday, Dec. 15, at the White Earth Health Center before the initial doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are administered to White Earth health care workers. (Michael Achterling / Tribune)
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OGEMA, Minn. — The first COVID-19 vaccines were administered to 10 health care workers at White Earth Health Center on Tuesday, Dec. 15.

Officials from the Indian Health Service headquarters in Rockville, Md., were at the health center near Ogema on the White Earth Reservation to oversee the administration of some of the first COVID-19 vaccinations in Minnesota. The IHS is an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and is the principal federal care provider for American Indians and Alaska natives.

"We're excited about this important milestone that we've reached on the COVID-19 vaccine," said Rear Adm. Michael D. Weahkee, Indian Health Service director. "COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed, as we speak, to federal, tribal and urban Indian organizations to ensure that the vaccine is effectively delivered throughout Indian country."

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Rear. Adm. Michael D. Weahkee, director of the Indian Health Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, speaks during a press conference at the White Earth Health Center before the initial doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are administered to White Earth health care workers on Tuesday, Dec. 15. (Michael Achterling / Tribune)

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Weahkee, a member of the Zuni Tribe in New Mexico, said, on Sunday morning, Dec. 13, soon after the FDA approved the emergency use authorization for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, shipments were already being sent out to Indian Health Service facilities.

The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is expected to be approved for emergency use by the FDA within days.

IHS is expecting to receive 22,400 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 46,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine during the first phase of vaccine rollout, Weahkee said.

"All of those Pfizer doses will be delivered by the end of today to 19 of our hub-facilities for further distribution to federal, tribal and urban sites," Weahkee said. "The first allocation of Pfizer and Moderna doses will allow IHS to vaccinate 100% of our health care workforce and residents of long-term care facilities not accounted for by Medicare and Medicaid services."

More than 330 tribal nations across the country elected to receive the COVID-19 vaccine through IHS instead of their respective states, Weahkee said.

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Cmdr. Deanne Udby, left, of the Indian Health Service, administers a dose of COVID-19 vaccine to Ashley Lohnes, a respiratory nurse, at the White Earth Health Center on Tuesday, Dec. 15. (Michael Achterling / Tribune)

"The IHS well-prepared and positioned to begin COVID-19 vaccinations," he said. "Our ultimate goal is to ensure that safe and effective vaccines can reach Indian country as quickly, and as equitably, as possible."

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Maria Clark, CEO of the White Earth Health Center, said her team members have made work, home and lifestyle changes during this pandemic and these vaccinations represent the beginning of their sacrifices paying off.

"Some of us have lost family members," Clark said. "I am extremely grateful that IHS, HHS and the tribe, that everything was done collaboratively, happily and excitedly, and it was done perfectly, as far as receiving this vaccine today."

After the statements from IHS and White Earth tribal leaders, Merlin Deegan Sr., a member of White Earth, performed a ceremonial blessing for the vaccine before the first doses were administered.

The first IHS-administered vaccination occurred at 2 p.m. Monday, Dec. 14, to a health care worker at Cass Lake Indian Health Services in Minnesota. The White Earth Health Center is the second IHS facility in the country to begin administering the COVID-19 vaccine.

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