Bois Forte travels state to bring vaccine to band members

Prior to launching the mobile vaccine unit, Bois Forte Health and Human Services had vaccinated more than 2,000 people.

Kristen Lilya is vaccinated against COVID-19 by Bois Forte Medical Clinic nurse Terry Defoe at Duluth’s Damiano Center on Thursday March 18, 2021. The Bois Forte Band of Chippewa recently launched a mobile vaccine unit to ensure that band members off the reservation are getting vaccinated. They're stopping Duluth and the Twin Cities on Thursday. (Steve Kuchera /
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Eight Bois Forte Tribal Government employees hit the road Thursday to vaccinate band members around the state.

Their first stop was at the Damiano Center in Duluth, where roughly 40 people were scheduled to receive their vaccine dose. Later that afternoon, they drove to the Twin Cities, where they planned to vaccinate another 120 people Thursday evening and all day Friday.

"It's well worth it to see the band members coming here, taking advantage of it and saying 'yes, it's a good idea to get vaccinated,'" said Shane Drift, Bois Forte Reservation Tribal Council representative.

Bois Forte Reservation Tribal Council representative Shane Drift talks about the new ambulance the band recently received and is using as a mobile COVID-19 vaccination for now. Drift is also a member of the Bois Forte ambulance service and the fire department. (Steve Kuchera /


Drift drove an ambulance carrying the supplies and a small freezer of Moderna vaccines. He said the band recently purchased the used ambulance with some of its federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security dollars.

There's value in band members having the chance to receive the vaccine from their reservation and not having to travel to the reservation in order to do so, Drift said.

"Band members can feel like, 'My reservation is coming down here to this. Our people are getting it back home,'" Drift said. "They have that trust with the reservation."

He added that when eligibility first expanded from health care workers to elders on the reservation, it was word-of-mouth communication from the elders who had received the vaccine that sparked interest in others who then wanted to get vaccinated.

Bois Forte Medical Clinic pharmacist Julie Skoglund draws a dose of COVID-19 vaccine before the start of a vaccination clinic in Duluth on Thursday March 18, 2021. (Steve Kuchera /

While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccine eligibility phases for states to follow, tribal governments are allowed to deviate from those guidelines. Because of that, many tribal governments, including Bois Forte, have expanded eligibility to all band members age 18 and older as well as descendants, household members and members of other federally recognized tribes.

Additionally, Sue Larson, the clinic administrator for Bois Forte Health and Human Services, said they have also opened eligibility up to surrounding households and communities, regardless of whether those people are employees of the reservation or enrolled in the band. She wasn't sure if any enrolled band members outside the Bois Forte community had signed up for the mobile vaccine unit.


Prior to launching the mobile vaccine unit Thursday, the Bois Forte clinics in Nett Lake and Tower had vaccinated more than 2,000 people.

"We're seeing (demand for vaccine) go down a little bit, but as we expand our area we're good. People are very thankful because we're able to get it to them faster than a lot of places are," Larson said. "It's been good, positive results."

Bois Forte Health & Human Services Clinic Administrator Sue Larson talks about the mobile COVID-19 vaccination unit the band began to reach tribal members off the reservation before the start of the first mobile vaccinations in Duluth on Thursday March 18, 2021. (Steve Kuchera /

Larson said the band is going to do another messaging campaign to ensure that anybody who may have changed their mind and now wants the vaccine has the chance to get vaccinated against COVID-19. When vaccines first opened to elders, Larson said community health nurses pulled up a list of elders and went door to door with fliers.

"If an elder didn't come in, we actually had a community health nurse go to the elder's home and talk to them because we really wanted to get them in their households covered," Larson said. "Some still say, 'No.' Some are happy, and you can't force anybody to have them."

Kristen Lilya, 22, of Duluth, said she found out about the Bois Forte vaccine unit coming to Duluth from her mother, who lives in Orr. She said it was a convenient opportunity for people who don't live on or near the reservation. This was her first opportunity to get vaccinated.

"I wanted to do my part to protect my family," Lilya said after her vaccination.


The mobile vaccine unit will return to Duluth on April 15 to administer second doses. Asked if the mobile unit has additional travel plans, Larson said that will depend on whether there is more demand.

Bois Forte Medical Clinic nurse Terry Defoe goes over paperwork with Lester McGinnis before giving him a dose of COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination clinic in Duluth on Thursday March 18, 2021. (Steve Kuchera /

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