This article originally appeared on Havre Daily News.
Rocky Boy Health Center held its second mass-vaccination clinic Wednesday at Stone Child College, where 400 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine were administered.
Rocky Boy Health Center Chief Clinical Officer Lauren Corcoran said about one-third of people living on the reservation have been fully immunized and the vaccine rollout is in its fifth and final stage, serving all people 18 and older living on the reservation or employed by tribal entities.
"We've rolled out pretty quick," she said.
The clinic was administering first doses, but many who attended the first clinic Feb. 3 were there to get their second doses.
The health center has been making appointments between these clinics and, unlike many local public health entities including the Hill County Health Department, haven't needed to create a waiting list due to vaccine distribution and the rollout schedule of phases.
Corcoran said both clinics have gone well, and the next will likely be in April.
Vaccinations ongoing in region
The vaccine rollout has appeared to be working smoothly in this part of Montana, including at Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, which is holding vaccination clinics today and Friday and also as a sovereign Indian reservation is on its own schedule and offering vaccinations to all.
Local health departments also are continuing to hold vaccination clinics but on the state vaccine rollout schedule.
And officials are warning people that although numbers of new cases are significantly lower than they were a few months ago, and the vaccinations are ongoing, until most people are vaccinated the numbers could again surge. People are urged to follow precautions to slow the spread of the virus like wearing cloth masks when out in public, regularly washing their hands and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, avoiding large gatherings and not going out at all if it is not necessary.
The state is still in Schedule 1B of its vaccination rollout, although it was announced this week that phase was expanded effective next Monday to include people 60 and older.
The first phase was primarily for front-line health care workers, long-term care facilities and health care workers with direct exposure to patients with the virus.
People eligible from earlier rollout schedules who did not get vaccinated still are eligible in later phases.
Phase 1B was amended originally to include people 70 and older - the first version was 75 and older - and people 16 to 69 with qualifying underlying health conditions and Native Americans and other people of color at high risk of severe illness.
The changes also moved front-line essential workers, such as teachers, first responders and grocery store employees, along with people in congregate care and correctional facilities, to a later phase unless they have underlying health conditions.
The Montana Veterans Affairs Health Care system also has been providing vaccinations including through Havre's Merril Lundman Department of Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic in the Holiday Village Mall.
Local health departments are taking calls to add people to lists for when the state moves to Phase 1C as well as for current clinics.
People can call the Blaine County Health Department at 357-2345, the Hill County Health Department at 400-2369, the Chouteau County Health Department at 406-622-3771 or the Big Sandy Pharmacy at 378-5588 to get on vaccination lists.
Rocky Boy rollout going well
Corcoran and Chief Wellness Officer India Demontiney said Rocky Boy already had access to on-site testing when the pandemic began, which allowed them to get a head start and begin contact tracing immediately, which was a big deal earlier in the pandemic.
Corcoran said the U.S. Indian Health Services has been great to work with regarding the vaccine rollout and has been responsive to requests, increasing their allocation after being told the health center could handle more.
She said the rollout has been a different experience for the health center, with many employees needing to take on different roles than they normally would.
"It's been a learning process," she said.
Molina said he thinks the center's staff have adapted well and are doing their jobs admirably despite the circumstances.
"Our staff really rose to the occasion for us," he said. "They performed really well."
He said entities throughout the reservation have been working together to curb the spread of the virus in and help the health center not get overwhelmed.
Peace of mind
Attendees of the clinic said events like this are helping to provide a sense of security in the area despite the effects the pandemic has had on Rocky Boy.
"I feel relieved," said James Gibson, who got his second shot Wednesday, "But we lost a lot of people."
Shane Saddler, who also got his second shot at the event, said it feels great to be on the cusp of full immunization, not just for himself, but those he cares about.
"I'm doing it for my parents, I'm doing it for my kids, our elders," he said. "I'm glad I got to finally do it."
Ronald Bigback, who has been the IT Data Manager at both Rocky Boy clinics, agreed with the attendees and said the events, having run as well as they did, have contributed positively to the area's collective state of mind, and he encouraged everyone to get their shot so that can continue.
Demontiney said the refusal rate for the vaccine on Rocky Boy was high in the beginning of the pandemic, but after working in tandem with the tribal council to put education out to the public the situation has noticeably improved.
Saddler said he's been talking about the vaccine at work and he still sees a lot of undue suspicion toward the vaccine.
"There's still a lot of skeptics out there, thinking it's just Big Pharma," he said.
However, he said, his personal experience made him all the more eager to get vaccinated.
"I got COVID-19," Saddler said. "... Boy, I don't wish that on anybody. ... I felt like I was on my deathbed."
He said he still gets winded much more easily and the lingering effects of the disease are very obvious.
Corcoran, Demontiney, and Molina all asked that people get vaccinated as soon as possible despite any misgivings.
Restrictions and resistance
Rocky Boy was much more aggressive in it's efforts to control the spread of COVID-19, issuing stay-at-home orders and mask mandates earlier than most places in the state.
Similar measures adopted by Montana and local governments within the state, while supported by many, have faced sizable resistance.
Molina said, while some in the community have been resistant, the vast majority of the people on the reservation have cooperated with the health center and have done their best to keep each other safe.
"Like any community, we have outliers," he said, "but, for the most part, everyone has been willing to work with us and adapt."
Gibson said the restrictions, especially being required to stay at home, have been taxing on a lot of people on the reservation.
"It's been pretty tough, I mean being cooped up in your house for weeks at a time," he said. "It's tough on everybody."
Lori Osgood said the first clinic was held on a very cold day, but despite having to stand in line in below freezing temperatures she and many others were just happy to be able to be with people they hadn't seen in weeks or months.
She said having to stay home and inside is definitely difficult for people living in rural areas.
However, despite testifying to how difficult isolation can be, Gibson, Osgood, Saddler and Bigback all said it was worth it to keep their fellow residents, as well as the people in the surrounding areas, safe.
Gibson said people less able to fight off this virus needed to be looked after and the measures taken by Rocky Boy were important to keeping many of those people alive.
Bigback said the area got hit by COVID-19 worse than most places early on, but proactive measures have improved the situation immensely.
"It hit hard at first, we had a lot of cases. But now, we're being proactive we're down to zero cases on a daily basis," he said.
He said, despite the recent repeal of many COVID-19 restrictions in the state, most people in the Rocky Boy area are still wearing masks and many local entities are requiring their use, which he agrees with.
Demontiney and Corcoran said the restriction in the area have been aggressive but clearly have helped curb the spread of the virus.
"They were tough decisions, but I do think they paid off," Demontiney said. "We controlled the spread."