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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

'We’re Finally Turning The Corner': Pfizer Vaccine Arrives On Navajo Nation In Utah

A photo of vaccine needles.
Courtesy Utah Navajo Health System
The Utah Navajo Health System operates four clinics in San Juan County, including two on the Navajo Nation. It received 850 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on Dec. 24, 2020.

Clifford Sagg received a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Saturday, as part of the first wave of vaccinations on the Navajo Nation.

The 52-year-old said the experience was exciting but also scary, because he suffers from food allergies and was worried he might have a bad reaction.

 A Navajo man wearing blue sweater holds a small piece of paper
Courtesy of Clifford Sagg
Clifford Sagg, 52, holds his vaccine certificate. He works as a quality improvement coordinator for the Utah Navajo Health System in San Juan County, Utah.

“I kind of debated whether I should get vaccinated or not,” he said. “And then I thought, it can’t just be about me, it’s got to be about everyone else.”

Sagg works for the Utah Navajo Health System, which operates four clinics in San Juan County. The mortality rate due to the coronavirus in the county is over five times higher than the rest of the state, and the mortality rate for the Navajo Nation as a whole is over seven times higher than Utah’s. So employees of the Utah Navajo Health System were happy to receive a shipment of 850 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on Christmas Eve.

“It feels like we’re finally turning the corner,” said Byron Clarke, chief operations officer for the Health System. “There’s finally a solution after months with no real breaks or silver linings.”

So far, the vaccine roll out is going well, according to Clarke.

He said the Health System purchased an ultra-low temperature freezer, despite directions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“They told everyone not to order one, but we read between the lines and said, ‘We’re going to order one,’” he said.

This allowed the clinic to receive a shipment of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which must be stored at negative 80 degrees Celsius. It was approved a week earlier than the Moderna vaccine, which does not need to be stored at ultra-low temperatures. Clarke said other hospitals and clinics in the region may use the freezer for storage, too.

The Health System will have vaccinated almost all of its employees by the end of this week, according to Clarke. An internal survey found over 90% employees plan to get the vaccine, up from 58% at the beginning of December. Clarke attributes that to media coverage of medical workers getting vaccinated around the U.S., as well as educational outreach to employees by administrators of the Health System.

“We explained that it is 15 times more likely to get struck by lightning than to go into shock from the vaccine,” Clarke said.

Life-threatening reactions to the vaccine are rare. According to a Food and Drug Administration report on the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, less than 0.5% of the vaccine trial’s 38,000 participants experienced a severe reaction to the vaccine. But there have been some reports of healthcare workers experiencing allergic reactions to the shot.

None of the 250 people on the Navajo Nation who participated in the vaccine trial experienced severe reactions, according to Laura Hammitt, who led the study for the Center for American Indian Health.

Clarke received the vaccine on Monday after contracting COVID-19 twice this year, and he said the Health System will begin vaccinating elderly people and those with co-morbidities in January. Current Health System patients over the age of 75 can get vaccinated at the Montezuma Creek clinic on Jan. 4, the Monument Valley and Navajo Mountain clinics on Jan. 5 and the Blanding Family Practice clinic on Jan. 6.

“It’s a huge relief knowing that people, especially more vulnerable than me, will have a chance of fighting it and surviving it,” he said.

But Sagg said it came too late for many on the Navajo Nation — including his own community of Mexican Water, where he serves as chapter secretary.

The 650-member community located on the Utah-Arizona border has lost around 25 people to the virus so far, according to Sagg.

“It didn’t come fast enough,” he said. “But it's the light at the end of the tunnel.”

This story has been updated to include information about upcoming vaccination opportunities for Utah Navajo Health System patients over the age of 75, and to correct the number of of clinics the Health System operates in San Juan County.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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