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Health, Science & Environment

Native People On Tribal Lands Have Higher Vaccination Rates Than Those In Cities — And It’s All About Messaging

A sign directing people into a vaccination clinic run by the Utah Department of Health.
Brian Albers
/
KUER
State and community leaders are placing pop-up and mobile vaccination clinics in areas with low vaccination rates.

People of color in Utah are less likely to have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine than white Utahns. This gap has existed since vaccinations started in December, and it’s only widened since.

Less than a third of eligible Native Americans in Utah are fully vaccinated according to the Utah Department of Health, but in comparison, 60% of white Utahns are fully vaccinated.

Maurice “Mo” Smith, the executive director for the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake and a member of the Navajo Nation, said his organization is collecting research to figure out why Native Americans are hesitant or what obstacles stand in the way of them getting vaccinated.

“We’re not unique when you look at the numbers across Utah,” Smith said. “I don’t think there’s any uniqueness to being enrolled as a tribal member.”

Some tribes in Utah are reporting higher vaccination rates than the rest of the state, though. By April, the Navajo Nation had already vaccinated half of its adult population.

Smith said that is thanks to effective messaging.

“In tribal communities and within tribal settings, the message is consistent, it's clear,” he said. “Whereas in an urban setting, you have a whole array of messaging.”

Smith said the Navajo Nation has been cautious in easing restrictions, and leaders have been consistently encouraging tribal members to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Meanwhile, the message from Utah’s elected officials has been confusing, Smith said, because they’ve politicized wearing a mask and getting the vaccine.

On average, about 550 people of color were vaccinated per day in the past week according to Utah Department of Health data.

That rate has been about the same in most communities throughout the summer, although there was a bump among Hispanic or Latino communities and Pacific Islanders in mid-August.

Utah received $30 million from the CDC last spring to help vaccinate underserved communities.

“If there's a low vaccination rate in particular areas, then they're underserved because they're not getting a vaccine,” said Rich Lakin, the immunization program manager for the Utah Department of Health.

He said most of that money was given to Utah’s 13 local health departments which were then tasked with figuring out how to narrow the vaccination gap. Lakin said some departments have had success with mobile vaccination units.

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