HELENA — In Montana, there are three vaccination distribution programs: the State of Montana’s allotment from the federal government, the Montana VA Health Care System, and Indian Health Service (IHS).
As of March 18, Billings Area IHS is leading both the state and national IHS in vaccination efforts with 17 percent of the population they serve having been fully vaccinated by IHS. On Mar. 18 the State of Montana had vaccinated just shy of 14 percent of the state’s population
“The Billings Area Indian Health Service has outpaced what we’ve seen across the state and even across the country and across IHS,” said CDR Angela Troutt, Billings Area Vaccine Task Force lead. “We credit that to our frontline workers shifting resources and making changes in their workflow and staffing models to really put a priority on getting the vaccination administered as quickly as possible.”
According to data from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), Montana’s American Indian community has seen more lives lost to COVID-19 by population than any other racial demographic in the state.
“CDC has published data very recently showing that American Indians and Alaska natives are at a significantly higher risk of COVID disease and severe complications including hospitalization and death,” said Troutt.
Nationally, American Indians and Alaskan natives were 3.7 times as likely to be hospitalized due COVID related complications, and 2.4 times as likely to die from the disease.
“Montana and Wyoming as a whole was not hit as hard as other areas of the nation,” said Billings Area IHS Chief Medical Officer Dr. Steve Williamson.
IHS believes there are a couple of factors that helped reduce the impacts of the virus on Montana’s reservations. Many reservations took quick action to implement COVID preventions such as shutting down their borders and implementing shutdowns.
However, even with those quick precautions Montana’s Native American populations still suffered greatly. Although American Indians make up about 7 percent of Montana’s population, they represent 18 percent of reported COVID-related deaths in the state.
One year after the pandemic was declared, Montana’s tribes are making significant progress in their efforts to protect their communities.
Last week, the Blackfeet Nation announced that 95 percent (6,693 of 7,000 eligible adults ages 18 and older on the Blackfeet Reservation) had been vaccinated against COVID according to Southern Piegan Clinic and Blackfeet Community Hospital.
“We’re working hard and diligently to stay safe in our community, and not just us but you and everyone else around you and our whole state,” said James McNeely, Blackfeet Tribe public information officer.
McNeely credits a lot of the success to advocacy and the tireless work of vested local nurses, Tribal Health and their local, state and federal COVID response partners.
“My absolute respect and honor goes to those nurses—it was the nurses in our tribal clinic and our community hospital here who have been vigilant getting those vaccines out, it couldn’t have happened without them,” said McNeely. “And then we have the CHS community health nurses who followed the contact tracing, along with our contact tracers. Words can’t express how thankful we are to these people that have done this for us. That’s what got us there, advocating, going around—and our people just flocked when it was time for vaccines.”
Billings Area IHS has now moved to Phase 2 of their vaccination strategy and has greatly opened up eligibility for many of their areas.
“What we’re striving for is community immunity,” said Troutt. “That’s why we’ve really opened up our doors to anyone that’s lived in or around reservation communities, to provide that extra layer of protection and keep our patients safe.”
In Browning, the Southern Piegan Clinic and Blackfeet Community Hospital are offering vaccines to any Montanan over the age of 18, whether they’re a tribal member or not.
The vaccine clinics are walk-in Tuesday through Thursday from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at both the hospital (406) 338-6191 and tribal clinic (406) 338-3680.
IHS says they have begun to experience vaccine hesitancy from some of the communities they serve and are working with local tribal leaders to raise awareness about the safety of the vaccines and protections they offer.