Peace of mind: Diné embrace vaccines for safety of selves, those around them
Ruth Armstrong, 88, lifted the sleeve of her purple velveteen blouse so she could get the Pfizer vaccine Saturday at the University of New Mexico-Gallup gym. Armstrong dressed for the special occasion wearing a matching skirt to go with her blouse, and was adorned with turquoise.
Armstrong and her daughter Maxine Armstrong-Touchin were able to get their vaccines, and after it was done Armstrong expressed her gratitude. “She’s thankful and happy with it,” translated Armstrong-Touchin for her mom after getting the vaccine. The seemingly never-ending weekend lockdown on the Navajo Nation was lifted last weekend for the sole purpose of allowing Navajo citizens to try to get their vaccines.
On Saturday there was a vaccine event at UNM-Gallup gym and on Sunday another event was held at Tsehootsooi Medical Center. “The reason we lifted the 57-hour curfew is because we need to vaccinate as many people as we can,” said President Jonathan Nez. “It’s like a race now. You’ve got all these variants all around us. The scientist has said even getting a shot will push back on the virus.”
So far the Navajo Nation has received 64,713 doses of the vaccine and of this 53,483 have been administered. On Saturday, over 1,000 people were vaccinated at UNM-Gallup and on Sunday another 1,000 or more were vaccinated at Tsehootsoi Medical Center.
As of now, the vaccine is reserved for the most vulnerable population, those 55 and older (recently reduced from 65) and individuals who are at high risk of dying from the disease because of prior health conditions. Over two-thirds of the 1,032 deaths (as of Tuesday) were people in those brackets.
Determined to get vaccine
Armstrong-Touchin said she experienced a sore arm after getting the vaccine. Her mom didn’t complain. Of course, knowing how dangerous COVID-19 is for the elderly population, Armstrong-Touchin said she was determined to get Armstrong vaccinated. Armstrong-Touchin, who takes turns with her sister to care for Ruth, said, “We keep her at home to keep her safe. When she’s with me and we have to go shopping we make sure she has her mask. We make sure she doesn’t shake hands with anybody, or hug anybody. It’s a habit to do that for her.”
Although trying to get the vaccine administered to as many people as possible is the goal, people have to be willing to wait in long lines — some for up to seven hours — and there’s always the chance of being turned away if the vaccine runs out or they’re not in the proper age group.
On Sunday at Tsehootsoi Medical Center, the line of cars zigzagged from the hospital through hospital housing and nearby schools, and then finally up the road that leads to Sawmill. Some people were in line as early as 4:30 a.m. waiting for the event to start at 9 a.m. It was first-come, first-served, and by 1 p.m. the vaccines were all given as a number of cars still waited in line. At UNM-G the line was also extensive, snaking through the housing area, and people had been waiting as early as 6 a.m. But the process of getting people vaccinated didn’t take too much time.
Side effects possible
Inside the UNM-Gallup vaccination site, people came in and were taken to different stations to get their shot and then sat down for 15 minutes to make sure they didn’t experience any side effects. “What I tell my patient when they ask me is with the vaccine there can be side effects and allergic reactions like any other vaccines,” said Dr. Kevin Gaines. “But what we have seen here with the consequences of COVID, not getting the vaccine is much riskier than getting the vaccines.”
Gaines has been working at Gallup Indian Medical Center for almost 20 years and having seen what COVID-19 has done to the community, he said he’s excited the vaccine is here and they are able to give it out to patients. This was GIMC’s second weekend of administering vaccines. “We’ve got 60 or 70 staff members who are helping to volunteer today,” said Gaines. “So the whole staff is excited to be a part of this … because they’ve been on the front lines and are seeing what COVID is doing to our patients.”
Louis Gaddy was waiting in line since 6:45 a.m. and he was excited to get his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine. He said he had no doubts and no hesitation. “I feel good, I feel like I’m going to live,” said Gaddy. “The pandemic is scary … especially (for) my grandkids. I think a lot about them. I just wish our little ones could get it also.”
Eighty-two new COVID-19 positive cases and 12 more deaths were reported on the Navajo Nation as of Tuesday. Reports indicate that 14,709 individuals have recovered from COVID-19, and 233,764 tests have been administered.
The total number of positive COVID-19 cases is now 28,471, including two previous cases that were not reported earlier.
Be patient, health officials ask
Dr. Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer for Navajo Area of the Indian Health Service, said they are hopeful to get an additional shipment of vaccines in the next week or two. But so far they get a weekly allotment that is distributed to all health care facilities.
Being patient during this time is key, she said, as well as continuing to mask up, social-distance, stay home and wash your hands. “We include our urban site in Flagstaff and as far east as Crownpoint,” said Christensen. “We make sure everyone has vaccines to give you when you come to their facility. We also vaccinate anyone that comes home.
“So if you are off the reservation for school or work, any other activities that have taken you away from home we will definitely care for you when you go to your home-of-record hospital,” she said. Gary Custer and his wife were also determined to get their vaccine Saturday to protect themselves and others around them. Custer said for the most part during the pandemic he’s been keeping away from people, and is always masked up.
“I feel relief,” said Custer. “I feel there’s a buffer now. Before all of this it was hit and miss. With this buffer now you can say you have a peace of mind that you have something that will protect you and other people.”
The second surge of COVID-19 on the Navajo Nation started as far back as Labor Day, increasing quickly through the holidays. According to the contact tracing data most of the transmission came from family gatherings. Currently there is a downtrend in new cases. But medical personnel are bracing for the three more contagious new COVID-19 variants. The one knows as the U.K. variant has been found in all four states surrounding the Navajo Nation.
Dr. Jill Moses, with the Chinle Comprehensive Health Care Facility, has heard from the front lines that most Navajos have gotten COVID-19 from family or co-workers, and she reminded that people can be infected and contagious without any symptoms. Even with the vaccine giving some glimmer of hope, people are still encouraged and expected to wear their masks and follow all other health guidelines.
“To the families who take care of their elders, I applaud them,” said Armstrong-Touchin. “It’s been hard on our elders. They’re used to being outside, visiting people, being closer to loved ones. We are just doing the best we can to keep them safe.”