Theresa Gardner, a nurse practitioner with the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe Health Service, stands outside their COVID-19 vaccination clinic. The clinic is located in the former IGA grocery store across from the casino on June 23, 2021 (Celia Clarke / NCPR)
The COVID-19 Walk-in Vaccination Clinic in Akwesasne is open every Wednesday morning. It is located in the old IGA grocery store opposite the casino.
Barn swallows go back and forth around the entrance. Just inside, nurses sit at a long row of folding tables under the front windows. There is country music on the radio and a huge fan keeps a constant breeze.
Each nurse has a laptop and a stack of papers. Theresa Gardner is a nurse practitioner in the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe Health Department. She is encouraged by how the community has endured the pandemic so far.
âWe have a pretty healthy community. Our COVID rate has been very low for about two to three weeks. We have been at zero for several days and I hope it is due to our vaccination process to be here, âshe said.
Akwesasne is divided in two by the Canada-US border. By early July, 44% of people 12 and older on the U.S. side had been fully immunized. The percentage of people who received their first dose is higher. Gardner says the exact numbers are difficult to know because tribal residents can go anywhere in their territory.
“Some people get a hit on one side [then] they get it from the other side. So these numbers are sometimes hard for us to understand because they only have one chance here; they had a chance on the Canadian side. And a lot of people from the Canadian side are coming here for the second shot. So this kind of bias skews our numbers because they wait months to get their second shot [in Canada]. “
Three members of the Mohawk tribe of St. Regis have died from COVID-19. That’s a low death rate according to the Indian Health Service, a federal agency. It reports that Native Americans in the United States have higher infection rates and higher death rates at younger ages than whites in the United States.
Gardner and his public health colleagues have appealed to the sense of family and community of tribal members throughout the pandemic. She says it hasn’t always been a success.
âThe Super Bowl kicked our ass. You know, but we put that word in there, ‘Look at it, you all came together for the Super Bowl. Look at our rate. And, that message kind of got broadcast, âshe said. They prepared for other holidays when families and friends get together often, like Easter and Memorial Day weekend, but Gardner says they were glad there weren’t any peaks sickness after each vacation. She believes that people who were vaccinated as soon as the vaccines were available also helped prevent a spike.
However, getting the vaccine message across has not been easy. Akwesasne’s vaccination rate lags behind many other areas in the north of the country. Gardner, doctors and tribal leaders spread the word on local radio and television.
If transportation is a barrier, Gardner says health departments have a transportation division to help people get to the clinic. If necessary, she says she will even send a nurse’s aide to find someone and get them to get the vaccine.
Other times you have to patiently talk about people’s concerns about the vaccine, answer all questions. Gardner did this recently with a family. They asked themselves questions before letting their children get vaccinated.
Immunizing young people has been a slow process. Only 8% of children aged 12 to 15 have been vaccinated. Gardner expects that number to increase this summer.
âI think in the last few weeks we’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t want to get my child vaccinated because they have tests coming up. We have the graduation. So hopefully after graduation maybe things will pick up, âshe said.
Gardner says their vaccination clinic won’t close anytime soon. They plan for August, when the children go to school and vaccines might be available for those under 12.