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Kiswani-Barley reflects on unprecedented time for Health and Human Services

Dr. Vandhana Kiswani-Barley oversees operations at the Betty Mae Jumper Medical Center in Hollywood. She was named to lead HHS in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo Damon Scott)

HOLLYWOOD — Dr. Vandhara Kiswani-Barley began her career with the tribe in 2018 as a family practitioner working at the Big Cypress health clinic. Two short years later, in June 2020 and during critical months of the pandemic before vaccines were available, she became the interim executive director of Health and Human Services (HHS), succeeding former executive director Paul Isaacs. In part due to her leadership during those early months, the interim label was soon dropped.

Kiswani-Barley and the head of public safety, William Latchford, oversaw the tribe’s vaccine distribution, which began in
December 2020 when tribal leaders sought to set an example by receiving some of the first shots. She still oversees vaccines, boosters and treatments for Covid-19 for tribal members.

Now based out of the Betty Mae Jumper Medical Center in Hollywood, we asked Kiswani-Barley to look back on the string of months that were a stressful, and ultimately hopeful, time for the tribe.

What was the experience like in those early months? You had a family to take care of as well.

As a practicing provider I understand the need for all hands on deck to ensure the wellness and safety of tribal members, patients and staff. It has been very challenging, but I took it on for the better good of the people I serve. My family is very understanding, and although at times 18 hours of my day was devoted to the tribe during the surge, they understand the importance of saving lives and the time we live in now. Currently, the numbers have trended downwards so I am able to have a better work-life balance without impacting the delivery of services we provide to the community.

What were the challenges in terms of getting tribal members and tribal employees to take precautions seriously in those early months?

The challenging part was getting people to adhere to strict personal protective equipment (PPE) guidelines and quarantine/isolation guidelines.

Once the vaccine became available, what were the barriers in convincing people to get their shot?

The challenges we face at the health department are the fact that the vaccine is new. The myths that are on social media have dampened the acceptance. We continue to work through our challenges and we continue to educate the community.

What is your feeling with where things stand now?

Currently, we are in a much better situation. However, it is too early to tell if we are out of the woods. History shows that every major holiday brings a spike in the number of cases in the tribe and the nation. To be cautious, it is advisable to continue these strict protocols to see the impact of the next few holidays we have.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

We would have collaborated with hospital systems earlier.

What are some of the successes – things that made you feel good?

Saving life, educating the community and ensuring that the tribe has stellar resources and a team to help fight this

Editor’s note: Tribal members can call their local clinic or the HHS hotline at (833) 786-3458 for more information about the Covid-19 vaccine, booster shots, antibody treatments and the flu vaccine. Tribal employees can call the hotline for vaccine information as well.

Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at