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Navajo Nation leaders get first dose of COVID-19 vaccine

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

GALLUP — U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps Lt. Cmdr. Erica Harker counted down before pricking the arm of Navajo Nation Council Delegate Edison J. Wauneka with a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

Several leaders from the Navajo Nation received their first dose on Dec. 31 at Gallup Indian Medical Center as part of an effort to increase public confidence in the vaccine.

Building that confidence in communities of color can be challenging due to a history of unethical testing and experimentation.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Edison Wauneka receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 31, 2020 at Gallup Indian Medical Center in Gallup.

To spread their message, the leaders completed the vaccination process in a livestream on the tribal government's social media pages.

"I think the most important thing is protecting ourselves. When we do that, we protect others," Wauneka said during the livestream.

Wauneka, who represents Oak Springs and St. Michaels chapters in Arizona, contracted COVID-19 during the summer.

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Although the 69-year-old has recovered, he continues to see a specialist due to lung and heart conditions that developed from the disease.

While the vaccine is giving hope that the global pandemic will end, Wauneka is concerned about the slow rollout to vaccinate the public.

"I wish they would expediate the process, but I know it takes time, money and planning. People need to, in the meantime, continue to protect themselves," he said.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 31, 2020 at Gallup Indian Medical Center in Gallup.

For Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez live streaming the vaccination process will further public trust as well as showing support to scientists and medical professionals.

"Maybe by me taking it, I'll bring some public confidence in taking this vaccine because we need to push back on this virus," Nez said.

The Navajo Nation continues to be hit hard by COVID-19. Health agencies that serve the tribe have reported 23,090 cases of the virus and 806 people have died as of Dec. 31.

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Nez explained in an interview that he, Speaker Seth Damon and five delegates who are 65 years old and older received the vaccine after it was administered to frontline health care workers and under protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A syringe containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is seen on Dec. 31, 2020 at Gallup Indian Medical Center in Gallup.

"This is a glimmer of hope for all of us that we will begin the transition into getting back to our normal lives," the president said.

Navajo Area Indian Health Service has acquired the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. Both received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December.

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According to a press release from Navajo Area IHS, the agency has been prioritizing dispensing vaccines to health care personnel in clinical settings and to residents in long-term care facilities.

From left, Navajo Nation Council delegates Paul Begay, Jimmy Yellowhair and Edison Wauneka and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez wait inside Gallup Indian Medical Center on Dec. 31, 2020 in Gallup.

The release states that other groups, such as individuals with high-risk medical conditions, the elderly, essential workers and government employees, will be offered the vaccine as more shipments are received.

"As additional shipments of the COVID-19 vaccines are received, each health care facility will provide vaccines to appropriate priority groups. Depending on the population and available vaccine allocations, some facilities may be able to provide the vaccine to certain target groups earlier than other facilities," the release states.

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The tribal leaders will receive their second dose in two weeks and were told to continue following public health guidelines, including wearing face masks, practicing social distancing and hand-washing.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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