Tribe moves forward with vaccination program, mitigation efforts to slow virus

Initiatives help control rates of infection

The Chickasaw Nation has been focused on inoculating Chickasaw elders and Chickasaw Nation health care workers during the first weeks of COVID vaccine availability.

Lt. Gov. Chris Anoatubby routinely monitors and supports the vaccination and COVID mitigation efforts within Chickasaw Nation operations.

Delivery of the Pfizer vaccine has begun to ramp up, he said, and thousands have already received both the first and second doses.

“We really can’t give enough credit to Dr. Charles Grim and Dr. John Krueger for their great leadership through this pandemic,” Lt. Gov. Anoatubby said. “Additionally, all our health care teams across all departments have done an outstanding job. It has been humbling to be part of and to witness the great teamwork we have throughout all our departments. The way they have worked together during these challenging times has been inspiring.

“The health team has developed a very ambitious vaccination plan,” Lt. Gov. Anoatubby said. “We have focused on our elders and our front-line health care workers. We are coordinating all the steps that go into getting the vaccine into people’s arms as organized and efficiently as possible.”

Those steps include acquiring the vaccine, properly storing the vaccine, training staff and developing venues for giving the shots.

The tribe’s health department, Lt. Gov. Anoatubby said, has worked closely with the U.S. Indian Health Service to execute a solid, workable plan for rollout of the vaccine.

“The IHS is a very important partner,” Lt. Gov. Anoatubby said. “We receive our vaccine directly from IHS, so it is imperative we work cooperatively with them to make sure we provide accurate data concerning our vaccine plan and administration in order to receive adequate vaccine supply now and in the future.”

Another important element with the Pfizer vaccine is storage. The Pfizer vaccine must be kept at super low temperatures, thawed and reconstituted prior to injection. The vials must be transported and stored between -76 degrees and -112 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We have three of the ultra cold temperature freezers to hold the vaccine safely, so those pieces of equipment are critically important,” Lt. Gov. Anoatubby said. “We can store a sufficient quantity of the vaccine on-site safely.”

The priority designation for Chickasaw Nation health care workers was an obvious decision virtually all states and tribes are making. The Chickasaw Nation also designated elders a top priority.

“We had already prioritized our elders ahead of Centers for Disease Control recommendations,” Lt. Gov. Anoatubby said. “We knew vaccinating elders had to happen as soon as possible.”

A number of elder vaccination events are being conducted throughout the Chickasaw Nation. The key, Lt. Gov. Anoatubby said, was making sure both vaccine and staff could be deployed at proper levels to take care of everyone.

“We expect the flow of the vaccine to us to steadily increase over time due to our ability to effectively administer it,” he said. “We want to be sure we have both adequate vaccine and the staffing in place as we scale up our vaccination plan.”

On the administrative side of the operation, Lt. Gov. Anoatubby and the team have focused on the Chickasaw Nation workforce to keep the virus at bay. A number of workplace rules were instituted including a reduction of on-site employees to fifty percent where feasible. Those workers are often rotated on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.

Additionally, tribal workers continue to be screened daily and an aggressive testing plan remains in place. If an employee fails the screening, he or she is tested and must quarantine until test results are back. Random testing is also a routine and critical step. Approximately 200 to 300 employees are chosen at random for testing each week.

“The random tests provide us an extra layer of protection,” Lt. Gov. Anoatubby said.

If there is a localized outbreak in a particular office or building, suppression testing is often instituted in which every person on the local team is tested. This type of testing definitely helps control the spread as employees who are identified as COVID positive are quarantined and isolated at home for a sufficient recovery period.

“Our mitigation efforts have continued to be effective in keeping the workplace infections very low, Lt. Gov. Anoatubby said. “We are continuing to be vigilant and our infection rate has been consistently running at half, or slightly less than half, that of community rates.”

A significant part of the vaccination and virus control plan features bricks-and-mortar facilities. The Emergency Operations Center in Ada is a large facility that will offer a community command center, personal protective equipment storage and drive-thru testing and mass vaccination venue. The center is being finished to serve the entire surrounding community.

The alternate site care facility adjacent to the Chickasaw Nation Medical Center is almost complete. The hope is, Lt. Gov. Anoatubby said, that the need for the facility won’t arise. However, he said, if a surge did occur, the facility would be ready to accept inpatients.

Care cottages on the Medical Center campus are complete. The nine emergency quarantine units provide space when a COVID positive family member must quarantine from his or her family and requires isolation space.

The vaccination and virus control plan, Lt. Gov. Anoatubby said, are always subject to review and change as the environment dictates.

“We have found it is very important to review our efforts all the time,” he said. “This health emergency, and the needs of our people, can change quickly. We are dedicated to doing our utmost for all the people we serve.”