The Chickasaw Nation has begun offering COVID-19 vaccination appointments to educators and their families, regardless of tribal citizenship.
"Vaccines are available to teachers at any grade-level or education facility, including child care teachers, vocational instructors, university and college educators, adult learning teachers, etc," the Nation announced in a Monday news release. "You do not need to be an employee of the Chickasaw Nation, or a patient of the Chickasaw Nation Department of Health to participate if you are an educator."
Reached by Zoom Wednesday, Dr. John Krueger, chief medical officer for the Chickasaw Nation Department of Health, said the move comes as vaccine supply has become more ample and demand among existing priority groups has declined a bit, leaving appointment openings to be filled.
"We don't just stop and try to finish off that entire group -- we go ahead and continue to expand, because we recognize that a vaccine given to anybody benefits all of us, ultimately," Krueger said. "Getting a vaccine is about you, but it's also about protecting the communities that we live in."
Krueger said the Chickasaw vaccine effort has been very successful overall. As of Wednesday, he said, they had administered more than 20,000 doses, putting them ahead of schedule even with last month's winter weather. Chickasaw Nation offers the vaccines at sites in Ada, Purcell, Ardmore and the national capital of Tishomingo.
Krueger attributed demand drop-off among existing priority groups to both anxiety around the vaccine's newness, as well as individuals who qualify believing they can wait since they don't consider themselves as high-risk as others.
Krueger said while he understands those concerns, he encourages those who are eligible to get vaccinated as soon as they are able and feel comfortable. He cited research showing that higher vaccination rates for those between the ages of 18 and 60 correlate with a reduction in infection risk for the entire community.
"We're in a bit of a race, as you know, against some of the variants that are starting to spread, not just in the United States but in the world. So you want to try to use as much of the vaccine as you can," Krueger said.
"We'd like to get vaccine into arms, and giving you a shot is going to benefit a lot of other people as well as you and your family," he said. "We really see this as one of the major vehicles to get our life back to normal, to get everybody's life back to normal."
Chickasaw Nation receives its vaccine doses from the federal Indian Health Service, which allows individual tribes flexibility in how they use their allocations. Other Oklahoma tribes, including Cherokee, Osage, and Muskogee (Creek) Nations, have also expanded beyond the priority framework followed by the state of Oklahoma.
IHS Acting Director Elizabeth Fowler, a member of the Comance Nation, said at a press conference at the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic on Tuesday that IHS had surpassed 125,000 doses administered in the state of Oklahoma, and that discretion at the local level had helped with that success.
"They know best of all who needs the vaccines within their communities," Fowler said of the tribes.
The Oklahoma State Department of Health recently credited the joint effort of the state, tribes, the IHS and the Veterans Administration for Oklahoma surpassing 1,000,000 doses of vaccine administered. According to the CDC, as of Tuesday Oklahomans had the sixth-highest rate of any state population -- 10.2% -- for percent having received both doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.
More information on the Chickasaw Nation vaccine effort, and on how to schedule an appointment, is available at the tribe's website.