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Public Health

The Chitimacha Tribe Avoided COVID-19 Death And Hospitalization — Now It’s Vaccinating The Community

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Phoebe Jones/WWNO
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Cypress Bayou Casino employee Terry Freeman received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine while at work.

Rachel Patin did not want to get any of the three available COVID-19 vaccines. They were all produced too quickly for her comfort.

“[There’s] just not enough history, enough testing,” the Iberia Parish home health aide said.

But on April 7, she reluctantly found herself at a vaccination clinic at the Cypress Bayou Casino Hotel in neighboring St. Mary Parish.

There were a few things that helped to change her mind. First, the shot that was being administered that day was Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine. She said she wouldn’t have taken one of the two-shot options. Second, she and her husband really miss traveling.

“We like to cruise. We go about twice a year and I believe that we'll have to have it to be able to cruise,” she said.

It also helped that her son, who told her about the vaccination event, works at the casino. It’s a place that she knows and trusts.

As more vaccines become available, public health officials in Louisiana are realizing that in order to get shots in arms quickly and efficiently, they have to provide vaccines in spaces that are convenient for and familiar to specific communities.

“We realized that we have to go to them,” said Peggy Bowers, vaccine specialist for the Louisiana Health Department’s Region 3, which includes St. Mary, Assumption, Lafourche, St. Charles, St. James, St. John and Terrebonne parishes — South-Central Louisiana.

Owned by the federally recognized Native American Chitimacha Tribe, the Cypress Bayou Casino and Hotel employs and serves residents from neighboring cities and parishes.

“It’s where people live, work, play and pray. And that is getting awfully convenient,” said Dr. William “Chip” Riggins, medical director of the Louisiana Health Department’s Region 3.

When the tribe’s health leaders proposed organizing a vaccination event that could service tribal members and the community at large, the casino just made sense.

“Having that leadership, that support, that thoughtful consideration and the willingness on their part to share what they think is best for them with their communities, as a trusted voice from the community, that's just going to make all the difference in the long run,” Riggins said.

Most of the people receiving vaccines on April 7 are not from the Chitimacha Tribe. Instead they’re connected to the Cypress Bayou either as a place they frequent for a meal, to play the slot machines, or as their place of employment.

Food stocker Terry Freeman had been thinking about getting vaccinated but he hadn’t made an appointment. COVID-19 had recently hit close to home.

“I just had a cousin that died from COVID. About a week ago,” Freeman said. “They just buried him.”

That motivated him to get the shot when he heard one of his coworkers talking about the vaccination clinic. He was able to leave his station, get vaccinated, sit for several minutes to see if any adverse reactions would occur, and return back to work in roughly 25 minutes.

He said he was relieved to have gotten it done with just one shot.

The tribe’s health clinic is supported by the federal agency Indian Health Service. It’s been receiving Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine directly from the U.S. government. By last Wednesday the facility had administered more than 250 initial doses and roughly 150 booster shots to their patients, most of whom are tribe members who live on the Chitimacha reservation.

In order to host a one-time mass vaccination that allowed anyone to make an appointment or walk in and get immunized, it made the most sense to use Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine.

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Phoebe Jones
The pavillion inside Cypress Bayou Casino is large enough to accommodate a robust vaccination clinic.

Vaccinators were prepared to administer up to 300 doses. Ultimately 173 people received vaccines. That feat may not have been possible, were the Chitimacha affected by COVID-19 in the same ways as other Native American nations.

To date, no Chitimacha Tribe members have been hospitalized for or died from COVID-19.

Karen Matthews, director of Health and Human Services for the tribe’s health clinic, attributes their success to strict mitigation measures, including tribal leadership support for Gov. John Bel Edwards’ stay-at-home order and a quarantine ordinance mandated by the tribal council. The ordinance included penalties for people living on the reservation who refused to adhere to social distancing and masking guidelines.

The reservation essentially shut down in March 2020. Roughly half of the staff at the health clinic worked remotely and patients who visited the facility were first screened on the phone and then seen outside if necessary. The clinic was able to begin offering services inside again by mid-May.

“It's astonishing to me that there are lots of tribes that have not reopened,” Matthews, who often speaks with tribal health directors around the country, said.

The tribe’s low COVID-19 rates are even more surprising when compared to rates for St. Mary Parish, where the reservation sits. The Louisiana Department of Health currently lists the parish as having the highest level of community risk of exposure to COVID-19. Its test percent positivity rate is 6 percent. And several census tracts within Franklin, the city nearest to the reservation, rank high on the social vulnerability index.

The difference, Matthews explained, could be a long-term investment in health. The tribe is known for hosting health fares for members on the reservation and the surrounding community. Part of its disaster preparedness training from the Bureau of Minority Health Access and Promotions includes preparation for a flu pandemic.

“When you have the tribal leaders that they have, who are progressive in their thinking, and willing to prepare ahead of time, it made it all the better for them,” Rudy Macklin, executive director of the bureau, said.

Macklin said last week’s event acted as a pilot for more vaccination clinics at Native American tribal venues in other parts of the state. He plans to conduct a similar event in Northwest Louisiana with six local tribes in that region.

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