Yakima County and the Yakama Nation’s efforts to combat the coronavirus and get people vaccinated are an example to the nation, the country’s second gentleman said.

“I look at this program that is serving a community that has not been served before,” Douglas Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, said Tuesday during a visit to the Yakima Valley. “This is really an example for equity, a model for serving underserved communities, from the minute they drive up to the minute they leave, it is a good experience.”

Emhoff visited the Yakama Nation and the mass vaccination site at the Yakima Valley SunDome at State Fair Park on behalf of the Biden administration to promote vaccination. During his visit, Emhoff also said the administration is making $68 million available for local efforts to promote vaccination. 

Gov. Jay Inslee discussed efforts to reduce barriers to getting vaccinated, particularly in the state’s Latino communities, such as mobile vaccination at fruit growing businesses and packing plants, allowing people to make vaccination appointments through the state’s 211 phone system and launching media campaigns encouraging people to get the shot.

U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Issaquah, and a pediatrician, stressed the importance of building trust to overcome vaccine hesitancy, particularly in communities where people may fear being detained by immigration officials if they come out.

“This is a safe place,” Schrier said in both English and Spanish. “You don’t need your documents or papers here.”

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Emhoff said he’s met too many people who have told him they didn’t believe the pandemic was real until a friend or family member died from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

He said the masks and the vaccine are working to reduce the coronavirus’s spread, as backed up by clinical trials and actual deployment of the vaccine.

“We have to keep wearing the masks, and following the science,” Emhoff said.

Tribal visit

Emhoff’s visit began at Legends Casino Hotel near Toppenish, where the Yakama Nation’s Tribal Council was conducting a socially distanced meeting in the resort’s event center. Emhoff was welcomed by the singing of a traditional honor song that also served as a prayer. He was later presented with a pair of blankets emblazoned with the tribe’s seal.

Tribal Chairman Delano Saluskin described the toll the virus has taken on the Nation, both in terms of lives lost — 49 — as well as the cultural losses, such as funeral rites that had to be foregone because of coronavirus restrictions.

“This hurt a lot of people because they were not able to see their loved ones off,” Saluskin said.

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He said the tribe has also experienced economic losses, as Legends only generated 40% of its annual revenue last year, and a tribal lumber mill was not able to fully operate due to the pandemic.

Emhoff said the administration is sensitive to the sacrifices being made in Native American communities to stem the tide of the pandemic, which has hit tribal citizens particularly hard. Emhoff said his visit Tuesday was the second time he had gone to Indian Country in his role as second gentleman, and he said it has left him humbled.

“I am struck by how you have put your traditions on hold for public health,” Emhoff said. “It is a good example.”

The American Recovery Act has $31 billion in assistance earmarked for Native communities, and the American Jobs Plan will provide additional relief through efforts to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.

Athena Sanchey-Yallup, the council’s secretary, said the Nation is also experiencing another crisis, that of missing and murdered Indigenous women, dating to the 1960s.

Emhoff said Harris has been dealing with the issue of violence against women since she was a prosecuting attorney in California, and that Biden was one of the sponsors of the Violence Against Women Act. And he said the MMIW issue is also important to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to head the department, which also oversees the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Emhoff also toured the Yakama Nation Cultural Center, where he was given an overview of Yakama history and traditions, and visited the vaccination site on the campus.