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Thurston County, home to two Indian reservations, claims Nebraska's top vaccination rate
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Thurston County, home to two Indian reservations, claims Nebraska's top vaccination rate

The first member of the Winnebago community vaccinated for COVID-19 was a military veteran who works for the health system operated by the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.

It wasn’t a random choice: Military veterans are highly regarded in tribal culture, and the veteran willingly stepped forward to show others the way.

“We think that kind of message goes a long way,” said Danelle Smith, CEO of the Winnebago Comprehensive Healthcare System.

Now 70% of residents of the Winnebago community age 12 and older have gotten at least one shot of the vaccine against COVID-19. On the local level, that exceeds President Joe Biden’s goal of having 70% of adults with one shot by July 4.

In addition, the latest county-by-county vaccination figures show Thurston County, home to the state’s Winnebago and Omaha Indian Reservations, leads the state with nearly 67% of its 18-and-over population fully vaccinated.

Thurston is followed by most of the state’s most populous counties, including Lancaster at 63%, Douglas at 62% and Sarpy at 58%.

In late May, Dr. Gary Anthone, the state’s chief medical officer, and Dannette Smith, CEO of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, participated in the Winnebago Tribe’s monthly COVID-19 Facebook Live update to talk about statewide vaccination efforts and to learn about the tribe’s successful campaign.

“The Winnebago Tribe has done an exemplary job vaccinating their residents and serves as a valuable model for outreach and care,” Dannette Smith said in a statement at the time.

Tribal health officials say they can’t point to any one thing that has helped them reach that mark. The tribe began laying the groundwork for its response several years before, said Danelle Smith, the tribal health official.

Danelle Smith Headshot

Danelle Smith

In 2018, the tribe assumed management from the federal Indian Health Service of what’s now known as the Twelve Clans Unity Hospital. The tribe also created the Winnebago Comprehensive Healthcare System, which became the umbrella organization for the hospital and the tribal health department. Smith said the organization built a good team and developed communication networks.

The Omaha Tribe of Nebraska has vaccination clinics in Macy and Walthill. But many of the tribes’ members are intermarried, and some Omaha Tribe members get care at the Winnebago hospital. The two tribes’ health officials meet frequently.

When the pandemic struck, Smith said, Winnebago leaders created a pandemic task force and began to prepare. While other communities still were debating, the tribe took the recommendations of its health department and implemented a communitywide mask mandate. The tribe provided information and education about the virus through a host of channels, from social media to flyers delivered door to door.

Mona Zuffante (5)

Mona Zuffante

And when vaccination began, health officials featured community members, including the veteran, getting the shots and talking about the importance of the vaccine.

Mona Zuffante, Winnebago public health administrator, said one of the tribe’s “most elder elders” told how she was able to finally meet a grandchild born during the pandemic after getting vaccinated.

Health officials’ connections in the community also helped. Danelle Smith is a Winnebago Tribe member and grew up in Winnebago. Zuffante is a longtime resident and a Native American. Many health system employees are part of the community.

The tribe opted to get its vaccine directly through the Indian Health Service, Smith said, and never ran out of shots. With its own ultra-cold storage on-site, it could take large shipments of vaccine.

Smith said more remains to be done to reach the 30% of residents who still are not vaccinated. Zuffante said health officials will continue to work with those who are hesitant, taking vaccine to homes or giving shots after hours if need be.

“The longer we continue our vaccine campaign, the more receptive (they’re) going to be,” she said.

A couple of powerful incentives: Community members are very social, Smith said, and want to get back to the connections they have missed among extended family and friends. In addition, the tribe will require vaccination for all eligible attendees at its annual powwow in late July. Not everyone is happy about the requirement, she said, but it’s important to keep safe a community in which many are vulnerable due to high rates of other health issues.

“I think this whole pandemic has been a challenge for everyone,” Smith said. “We are pleased for once we have a statistic in the state that is on the positive end.”

World-Herald Staff Writer Henry J. Cordes contributed to this report.

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Julie Anderson is a medical reporter for The World-Herald. She covers health care and health care trends and developments, including hospitals, research and treatments. Follow her on Twitter @JulieAnderson41. Phone: 402-444-1066.

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