The Winnebago Tribe Provides Hope to Community Members with COVID-19 Vaccination Program
Getting the COVID-19 vaccine into the arms of those who need it has been a nationwide challenge. Governors of surrounding states, including Iowa, admit there is a shortage. The first community vaccination clinics planned for Woodbury County this month quickly filled up.
Even though supplies are limited, the Winnebago Tribe in northeast Nebraska found a way to provide broader protection, as Siouxland Public Media’s Sheila Brummer explains.
“We are a very small tight-knit community.”
Mona Zuffante is the public health administrator for the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska where she says leaders take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously.
“We are a sovereign nation, so the tribal council can enact different policies and resolutions, and we have a mask mandate because of the importance of wearing masks.”
“We’re just in a different unique opportunity and ability, I guess to change our destiny.”
Zuffante says the Winnebago Tribe wasn’t constrained when it comes to guidelines surrounding the vaccine, which they secured through Indian Health Services.
A move giving hope to many high-risk members of the Winnebago Tribe.
“We have a lot of people that suffer from diabetes, heart conditions, and asthma. And, those are precursors
for people to have more severe issues.”
“Because they are our elders, knowledge holders, and native language speakers. Anytime we have a loss to our community, it is very devastating. So, those are years lost we can never recover from.”
While surrounding states in the region waited to move onto new phases of who can or can’t get a dose, the
Winnebago Tribe allows anyone over the age of 16 to put their name on a waiting list. For Iowa and Nebraska, the age is 65.
“My name is Keely Purscell. I am a member of the Winnebago Tribe and a patient of the 12 Clans Unity Hospital. I’m 48.”
Keely Purscell, who lives more than 150 miles away in central Iowa, signed up.
“I was expecting to be one of the last ones on the waiting list just because of my age, I’m not an elder and not anybody really.”
Purscell and her 25-year-old son, with special needs, received their shots the next day.
“When they called and said, ‘come do this’, I said “absolutely.”
Purscell says she still worries because her elderly in-laws, who also live in Iowa, still haven’t received their vaccines.
“I think the state of Iowa can learn a lesson from the Winnebago Tribe on how on really getting out there and administering to their high-risk population.”
“They give 150 at the vaccination clinic in Winnebago a week. Is that a shortage, absolutely. But, when they get the vaccine, they get it out there. That is one more person in our family and community. If they get that shot there is one more person who can live.”
“Some tribes and communities are better organized than others. And, thankfully we have very educated people and people who are passionate about their community like Mona who are really getting out there and making sure the message is heard.”
Mona Zuffante’s mission includes weekly clinics. In six weeks, almost 900 people received immunizations, including tribal employees and almost 200 health care workers.
Zuffante estimates 30% of people over the age of 16 in Winnebago have been vaccinated. A number much higher than the rest of the country.
“We have been doing public health since we have been put on his earth, and that gives us the ability to identify and the importance of vaccinating. Unfortunately, because as tribes we have been impacted by different diseases so rampantly some tribes aren’t even here because of the devastating impact on their life.”
Since we are so close-knit, there hasn’t been a person in this town who hasn’t been impacted by directly or
indirectly by COVID, so they see the importance of stepping up when it’s time to get their vaccine. We have a few who don’t want to, but hopefully, they change their mind.”
Unfortunately, Mona Zuffante wasn’t immune to the devastating impact of a virus she hopes to stop one shot at a time.
“My father-in-law actually died of complications of COVID. He was already ill and in May succumbed to it.”
The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska put out a video highlighting the importance of protecting elders and knowledge holders. The video includes insight from Viola Rave LaPoint and Jack LeMere, a veteran and commander of the Winnebago American Legion.