Michigan tribes help lead the charge against COVID-19 with mass vaccination efforts

By: - April 20, 2021 4:52 am

Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (LTBB) Health Department holds a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Lansing, April 17, 2021 | Laina G. Stebbins

As COVID-19 has killed Native Americans at a higher rate than any other group, tribes in Michigan — and across the country — have moved quickly once vaccines were available, administering shots to as many of their citizens as possible. In many areas, they’ve also extended vaccinations to non-Native populations.

That process is bolstered by the outreach efforts of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (LTBB) and others. On Saturday, a group of officials and medical professionals from LTBB’s health department traveled from Petoskey in northern Michigan to Lansing to hold a clinic focused on vaccinating Native residents who live downstate from the reservation.

LTBB Medical Director Terry Samuels said the clinic at New Covenant Christian Church & School had the availability to perform 100 Moderna vaccinations that day. Just before the clinic paused for lunch, Samuels said they had administered nearly 60 of those, with the recipients being “a mix” of tribal citizens and non-tribal residents.

“We are about 2 1/2 to 3 hours away, our reservation,” Samuels said. “We have tribal members here that may have difficulty traveling up to our vaccine clinics up north, so we wanted to do an outreach clinic to service the people in the Lansing area. This is one of those areas that doesn’t have a tribal health center nearby.”

The clinic will return in three weeks to administer second doses of the vaccine.

The LTBB Health Department officially expanded eligibility to the general public in Emmet, Charlevoix and Cheboygan counties on March 23. According to LTBB Health Director Jody Werner, the LTBB Health Clinic has so far provided over 4,000 vaccines in the Petoskey and surrounding areas for both tribal citizens and non-Native residents.

“As soon as the vaccines came out, we wanted to be part of the solution,” Werner said. “… I love my job because I feel like we can provide services to our people better than anyone else, because we can honor the culture and honor the traditions and incorporate that into what we’re doing,” Werner said.

“So for this, to bring [the clinic] down here and service our citizens down here — and they can get the vaccines elsewhere; we encourage them, no matter where, just to get vaccinated — but to be able to come and operate down here is a pleasure for us and we want to meet their needs down here also.”

Stateline reports the trend of tribes bolstering states’ vaccine rollouts is widespread across the United States. The Navajo Nation, for example, has now vaccinated more than half of its residents. The tribal territory had previously been among the hardest-hit areas in the country by COVID-19, but recently went 24 hours without a new case.


Jewell Chingman, an LTBB tribal citizen living in Lansing, received her first dose of the vaccine during the clinic Saturday. She said she is excited to participate in the LTBB’s outreach program to protect herself and her family members from COVID-19.

“It’s step one,” Chingman said of the shot. “I’ll be relieved after shot two.”

Chingman, 63, is diabetic and worried about the compounding health effects COVID-19 could cause for her and her loved ones who are also struggling with health issues.

“I strongly believe in vaccinations. I know that for us Native, we have a genetic, built-in weakness for some diseases and some illnesses where we just don’t have it in us to build immunity or to build defenses as fast as others,” she said.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).