In the race to get Washington K-12 educators vaccinated against COVID-19, the Lummi Nation health center’s Dr. Justin Iwasaki had a glimpse of the future.
It was early February, and most public school staff members were still not eligible for the vaccination under state health department rules. But the Lummi Nation, near Ferndale, Whatcom County, decided it would expand its vaccine eligibility to teachers.
After vaccinating tribal elders and other members, Lummi Nation began providing the inoculations to nearly 150 teachers and staff at Lummi Nation School and the tribe’s early learning programs. By Feb. 27, the tribal government expanded eligibility further, opening it to employees of the Ferndale School District, where many Lummi children are enrolled. The tribe offered vaccines to all employees, including those who aren’t members of the tribe.
“Lummi put teachers at the top, which is a really important statement,” said Iwasaki, who leads special projects at the Lummi Tribal Health Center and has helped run the health center’s vaccine drive.
Said Ferndale School District superintendent Linda Quinn: “We always find common ground when we talk about taking care of the children.”
The Lummi Nation is one of several tribal governments in Washington state helping hasten the vaccine rollout for educators here. The Suquamish Tribe is expected to vaccinate about 500 North Kitsap School District employees. The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe also provided North Kitsap school employees with doses. In Seattle this week, special-education teachers and instructional aides received vaccines through the Seattle Indian Health Board, easing the path for those who may have otherwise struggled to secure an appointment.
Educators’ access to vaccines has sped up rapidly since President Joe Biden directed states in early March to get shots in teachers’ arms by the end of the month. The state’s teachers union and education department aren’t tracking how many school staff members are vaccinated. Still, Washington is likely behind other states that prioritized teachers earlier on, such as Oregon, Minnesota and Kentucky.
Teachers aren’t required to be vaccinated to return to school. But vaccines are an important step to build trust in local communities, and tribal efforts have been critical to this effort, many say.
Statewide, about 40% of students are receiving some in-person learning, including many at Ferndale and North Kitsap schools, and most of the state’s teachers haven’t been vaccinated or reached maximum immunity if they’ve received a dose.
“It’s our moral obligation to take care of each other,” said Lawrence Solomon, chairperson of the Lummi Indian Business Council. Lummi Nation, which has more than 5,000 members, was the second tribe to shelter in place at the start of the pandemic and was one of the nation’s first to vaccinate its members against the coronavirus. “Overall, it makes everybody feel safe,” Solomon said. “Especially our parents of the students, and the teachers.”
Tribes are sovereign nations and create their own vaccine priority lists. Native American communities receive their vaccine doses through the federal Indian Health Service (IHS) or can partner with states. The Lummi Nation received doses through IHS and has accepted all three FDA-approved vaccines, Iwasaki said, which has helped the tribe zip through its vaccine eligibility phases.
Running the vaccine clinics has now become Iwasaki’s part-time job; his regular duties include work as a primary care physician and running an opioid overdose-prevention program. Since early this year, though, he and 30 to 60 other staff members travel to several vaccine sites, including the Silver Reef Casino Resort in Ferndale, twice each week and set up tables and space apart chairs for vaccine clinics.
It’s a massive, all-hands-on-deck effort: all kinds of health workers, including dentists, are called on to administer vaccines. Physical therapists direct the flow of people through the clinic.
“Giving vaccines all day is actually not a particularly glamorous job,” Iwasaki said. “But then when you reframe it, that we’re not just giving shots all day, we are actually vaccinating an entire school district, I think that creates a lot more motivation for folks. It’s a point of pride for our clinic.”
Quinn, the superintendent, remembers getting a Friday night call from Iwasaki, who shared the good news when shots became available in February. “This was their generosity,” Quinn said.
The Suquamish Tribe started its vaccine clinics with Suquamish Tribe Community Health staff, then tribal elders and other members and their households. After that, the tribe began offering vaccines to people who provide services to the community, such as teachers and child-care workers.
“We needed to create a safety net, essentially, around us,” said Cherrie May, manager of the tribe’s Office of Emergency Management. May and her colleagues began conversations with the North Kitsap superintendent Laurynn Evans before teachers became eligible for vaccination under Washington state Department of Health guidelines. Plans for a vaccine clinic were finalized the day before Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 2 announcement that teachers could begin signing up for appointments, Evans said.
“That afternoon after that announcement, I just remember seeing on my social media feed and talking with my fellow public educator colleagues [who were saying], ‘This is great, but I can’t get in anywhere to get a vaccine. There is no appointment available anywhere,’” Evans said.
The next day, Evans was pleased to tell staff that they could sign up for appointments at the Suquamish Clearwater Casino. Last Wednesday, Evans said, she was one of 250 or so North Kitsap teachers and staff who received their first dose, referring to the March 10 clinic. “As my staff were coming through, just tears, thankfulness, gratitude,” she said. “Schools can’t do it alone. In this case, we really could not do it alone.”