COVID-19 vaccines: community leaders build trust among Native Americans

Published March 11, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) harder than most groups. Healthcare that respects native cultures and information about COVID-19 vaccines from trusted sources are just some of what might help blunt the impact. For a Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota indigenous people’s advocate, honoring the strengths of Native communities is another.

Mortality rates twice other groups’

For Native Americans, the mortality rates are startling. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, AI/AN communities are dying from COVID-19 at twice the rate of Whites. Sometimes data from and about indigenous communities is reported differently or excluded. The Brookings Institution dug deeper and found that age-adjusted mortality rates for AI/AN groups are nearly twice those of any other group in the country.

A clinic for indigenous patients delivers culturally competent care

Sasha Houston Brown chairs the Indigenous People’s Resource Group for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota (BCBS Minnesota). Her father is an enrolled member of the Santee Sioux Nation, a band of the Dakota Oyate (Dakota Nation). In late 2020, the health plan's foundation funded a clinic for native people which, says Brown, “focuses on elevating indigenous doctors, along with elders and other community leaders, to be spokespeople and encourage folks to get the vaccine.”

When it comes to encouraging vaccination, native communities have solutions and important assets that they bring to the table.

- Sasha Houston Brown, BCBS Minnesota

Hearing from a trusted leader can build confidence in vaccines

Brown says there is mistrust of the vaccine and mainstream medical establishments among some American Indians. “A lot of our communities,” says Brown, “have experienced firsthand, and even not that long ago, mistreatment at the hands of healthcare or scientific researchers.” Hearing from a community member, a relative or a trusted leader about a personal experience with the vaccine could address some of that mistrust.

Honoring Native American-driven solutions

That approach, says Brown, honors a Native American approach to addressing threats to their own communities. “I think it's really important for non-native folks to see that native communities have solutions and important assets that they bring to the table,” she says. And health plans like BCBS Minnesota can support those solutions by funding community-based organizations, putting a high value on healthcare and services that respect cultural needs and what native and other underserved communities think will work best to end the pandemic.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota is an independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, an association of independent, locally operated Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies.

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association is an association of 35 independent, locally operated Blue Cross and/or Blue Shield companies.