HOLLYWOOD – The Seminole Tribe started its Covid-19 vaccine program in late December and has since administered the shot to hundreds of tribal members and key personnel.
Some of the first to receive the vaccine were tribal leaders and public safety and health care workers. Seminole Fire Rescue staff, which has been administering the shots, then began to vaccinate health clinic patients, disabled elders and those with diabetes.
Vaccine availability has since been opened up to any tribal member 18 years and older. After tribal members who wish to receive the vaccine have been given an opportunity, including non-tribal spouses that live with tribal members, tribal employees will be in line for the shot.
Dr. Vandhana Kiswani-Barley, the interim executive director of Health and Human Services for the tribe, has been overseeing vaccine distribution with the head of public safety, William Latchford.
In late January, she reported that the tribe continued to receive doses of the vaccine through the Indian Health Service, and was set to begin booster shots for some. The tribe is using the Moderna vaccine – a two shot series. The second, or booster shot, is given 28 days after the first. When both shots are given its effectiveness is 94.5%.
The tribe has been moving with urgency, as the virus worldwide continues to be a perilous one. Native Americans have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, with generally higher infection and death rates per capita than the rest of the population.
Elected tribal leaders said they wanted to get the vaccine to motivate others in the community.
“I wanted to set an example for other tribal members who aren’t sure what the shot is going to do,” Brighton Councilman Larry Howard said. “I wanted to pave the road for them as a leader.”
Councilman Howard, who is diabetic, has been open about his experience of contracting the virus last summer. He said after almost three weeks in the hospital he fully recovered with no lingering symptoms.
Some might wonder if it’s necessary to receive the vaccine if a person has previously had the virus. The answer is yes, according to health officials, because it’s still unclear how long antibodies keep someone immune.
In addition, health officials stress that it’s a myth that the vaccine can give someone the virus.
Kiswani-Barley said it’s true that one side effect of the shot is mild Covid-19-like symptoms – like a fever, chills or joint pain – but that those occur in a very low percentage of those who receive the vaccine. The most common side effect, she said, was soreness at the site of the injection – similar to the flu shot.
However, the vaccine is not a treatment for people who are currently sick with Covid-19, she said.
“We are all in it together and the safety of the tribe is of utmost importance to us,” Kiswani-Barley said.
President Mitchell Cypress joined Councilman Howard and others to promote the importance of the vaccine.
“It’s like the O.K. Corral; they’re ready to shoot,” President Cypress said to lighten the mood a bit before he received the shot Dec. 28.
Afterwards, he said the process was easy.
“Everybody should be getting the vaccine,” President Cypress said. “This is a serious virus that has destroyed people.”
President Cypress and Big Cypress Councilman David Cypress both received the vaccine at tribal headquarters.
The pair shared that one of their brothers had recently passed away from the virus.
Councilman Cypress also contracted the virus last summer.
“And here I am and hopefully everybody comes and gets their shots,” Councilman Cypress said. “It’s not something to play around with.”
Tribal leaders have encouraged younger people who sometimes experience mild or no symptoms to get the vaccine in order to prevent spreading it to others – including elders who are typically more vulnerable.
“At the end of the day we’re here to protect our community and our fellow neighbors,” Councilman Howard said.
Tribal members can call their local clinic or the Health and Human Services hotline at (833) 786-3458 to determine eligibility and be placed on a waiting list.