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Guest Column: Percentage fully vaccinated? It’s impossible to know

By Ethel Branch

Recently a meme produced by The Other 98 reported that the Navajo Nation has a 91% vaccination rate. This went viral as many Diné people, our friends and our allies embraced and celebrated this welcome positive news.

Submitted | Mark Peterman
Ethel Branch

I would love to celebrate this news as much as the next person, believe me, but this information is incorrect and promotes a false and dangerous sense of safety and security.
For example, it suggests that the Navajo Nation is vaccinated enough, and so additional vaccinations are not needed. That is simply untrue.

With Delta stripping vaccines down to 50% or 60% effectiveness, it is even more important for our community to fortify itself against Delta with a 100% vaccination rate.

Everyone in our community who is currently unvaccinated should do their part to protect our most vulnerable – our children, elders, and immunocompromised – by accessing the vaccine today.

We don’t have a moment to spare in this race against COVID.

It is difficult to know the true level of vaccination on the Navajo Nation but, as of Monday, the Navajo Nation’s lead medical officer, Dr. Jill Jim, stated in the Salt Lake Tribune that by her estimate, \approximately 70% of the Nation is vaccinated. President Nez offered a slightly more optimistic estimate of 80%.

This is encouraging, but where are Dr. Jim and President Nez getting their numbers from?

If you take the “total number of people fully vaccinated” as reported on the Navajo Department of Health dashboard (121,312) and divide it by the total population of Navajo Nation as reported in the Salt Lake Tribune (175,000), you get 69.3%.

That is almost 70%. Is that the source of Dr. Jim’s estimate? It’s hard to know.

I hope these high estimates of vaccination rates by Navajo Nation officials are true, but it’s impossible to know based on available data. It would be very helpful to have accurate and current data posted on the NDOH vaccine data dashboard so the public can track that information in real time.

Unfortunately, as of Tuesday, Aug. 24, the vaccine data hadn’t been updated since Aug. 6.

Yet even if the information presented on the NDOH webpage were timely, its meaning remains vague.

The “total number of people fully vaccinated” reported on the NDOH’s vaccination data dashboard appears to be a simple tally of the total number of people fully vaccinated in the Navajo IHS region.

I say “appears” because the page doesn’t specify what exactly is being reported there, though it does expressly exclude data from the Utah Navajo Healthcare System and Tohajilee, Alamo, and Ramah facilities. That leaves quite a few Navajo Nation residents out of the calculation.

Are the numbers reported by NDOH reflective of the total number of Navajo Nation residents who are vaccinated, or do they reflect the Navajo Region IHS service population?

If those numbers report on the service population, they likely include many people who have a chart with a Navajo Region facility, but don’t actually live on the Nation. And so a vaccination rate for the Nation calculated on those numbers would be inaccurate.

I understand that many of our tribal members traveled home to Navajo to receive their vaccines from a Navajo Region facility because this allowed them to access the vaccine more quickly and easily than through the states.

People traveled from as far away as Phoenix, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, and even St. Louis.

What percentage of off-reservation Navajo residents make up the Navajo Region IHS service population, and the “total number of people fully vaccinated,” if those numbers are the same?

Hopefully it is a small percentage and the percentage of people fully vaccinated on Navajo really is close to 70%.

However, given that we have almost 400,000 tribal members on our rolls now, it is possible that half (or more) of the 121,312 fully vaccinated Navajo people reported on the NDOH dashboard live off-reservation.

If that is true, that would mean that the percentage of Navajo Nation residents who are fully vaccinated is only 30% (or less). Yikes.

Sadly, it’s impossible to know the true vaccination rate on Navajo because the data presented on the NDOH dashboard doesn’t specify whether non-resident Navajos have been excluded from the data presented there, and NDOH doesn’t report a vaccination rate for Nation.

The Monday Salt Lake Tribune article suggests that widespread vaccination puts the Nation in a better position than neighboring states when facing the Delta variant, but how can we truly know that when Navajo Nation doesn’t report its vaccination rate?

Truly, it would be very difficult to identify a true Navajo Nation vaccination rate because (1) most people accessing Navajo Region facilities probably use their reservation address when they report to the facility, so it would be impossible for the facility to know that they live off-reservation, and (2) the Navajo population is highly migratory because our people so often have to leave home to access jobs and income in border towns and nearby metro areas.

One Navajo individual may in fact live on the reservation on his or her days off and live off-reservation on his or her work days.

It is extremely difficult to know the actual percentage of Navajo Nation residents who are fully vaccinated, and that is why we rely upon public health officials to sort through the data and provide us with the truest, most accurate picture of what is actually happening.

I hope NDOH will update its vaccination data dashboard and start reporting the Nation’s vaccination rate regularly. The states report this data regularly, and this allows Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund to track the threat of COVID in surrounding jurisdictions in real time.

Having timely and accurate information with a thorough explanation of what is being reported will be tremendously helpful in promoting situational awareness for our people so they can more accurately assess how safe they truly are from COVID on the Navajo Nation.

Ethel Branch is interim director of the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund.


 

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