MAHNOMEN, Minn. — One northwestern Minnesota county is outperforming all others in the state when it comes to administering the COVID-19 vaccine.

Mahnomen County, situated entirely within the confines of White Earth Nation, leads the way with 19.4% of its population having received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to data as of Jan. 25 from the Minnesota Department of Health.

Vaccination rates for its neighboring counties thus far are as follows: Norman at 10.3%, Clearwater at 7.7%, Becker at 6.7% and Polk at 6.5%.

The second best rate belongs to Olmsted County, home to Rochester and the Mayo Clinic, where 14.6% of the population has been vaccinated.

The robust response in Mahnomen County and on White Earth could be due, in part, to having access to multiple vaccine sources.

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Dr. Carson Gardner, medical director on the reservation, said the White Earth Indian Health Service (IHS) clinic received an allocation early on from the National Indian Health Service.

Dr. Carson Gardner serves as medical director for the White Earth public health department and ambulance service, and chairs the White Earth research review board. Dan Gunderson | MPR News
Dr. Carson Gardner serves as medical director for the White Earth public health department and ambulance service, and chairs the White Earth research review board. Dan Gunderson | MPR News

White Earth and other tribal nations have also received vaccine doses from the state separate from what other counties, including Mahnomen, have received.

Gardner said just as important, however, was the advance planning, extra hours of work, agency cooperation and community spirit that has taken place.

“We made a case for the science of vaccination, and we also made a case for the Anishinaabe values,” Gardner said, values which include truth, wisdom, courage, compassion, love, respect, honesty and humility.

Vaccination is critical for American Indians because they are three times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to contract COVID-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

American Indians who test positive also tend to be younger, and their death rate overall from COVID is nearly twice that of white people, the CDC said.

Gardner said White Earth formed a COVID response emergency operations team last March, and soon after, developed a plan to deploy the vaccine when it became available.

They got the word out through a vaccine education campaign, which included articles in the tribal newspaper, social media posts and videos.

By the time the vaccine was ready, the issue wasn’t convincing tribal members to take it.

“Our problem was deploying the vaccine efficiently enough as we started so that there wouldn't be any waiting lines,” Gardner said.

Early on, Norman-Mahnomen Public Health, a consolidated program managed by Norman County which serves people of both counties, assigned one of its public health nurses to the effort.

The unit provided vaccinations in Norman County and some areas of Mahnomen County that it could cover better than the tribal health department could cover, Gardner said.

Agreements with non-IHS providers, including Sanford Health and Essentia Health clinics, further boosted the effort.

“We have that benefit of all those different sources and together, that has a powerful effect on getting vaccine out into the community into the arms of our citizens,” he said.

On White Earth, front-line health care workers, tribal elders and other patients in high-risk groups were offered the vaccine first. Later, tribal and county public health nurses held mobile vaccination clinics in villages on the reservation.

Also, home health nurses were trained in giving COVID vaccinations and when the time came for weekly, biweekly or monthly visits, they’d call patients ahead of time to say they could receive the vaccine.

“We had very little resistance or hesitancy,” Gardner said.

The COVID-19 risk system on White Earth, on a 10-point scale, had been pegged at 10 for months. This week, it could drop below seven, Gardner said.

During the worst week in the counties that share land with the White Earth Nation, 16 people died of COVID-19. Last week, there was one death, he said.

Also, clusters of COVID cases among employers and families that used to be common are diminishing.

“All the indicators individually are suggesting together that we're in a much safer place than we were a month or six weeks ago,” he said.

Still, they’re not letting up with prevention measures, which include the #maskupWhiteEarth campaign.

“We’re still reminding people that what will save the most lives between now and spring is masking up, stepping back and washing up,” Gardner said.

Readers can reach Forum News Service reporter Robin Huebner at rhuebner@forumcomm.com