Tribal health organizations are unsung heroes of Alaska’s COVID-19 response and vaccination

At first glance, with our vast geographical land mass, limited infrastructure, and unpredictable winter weather, Alaska would be an unlikely candidate to lead the United States in vaccinating its population against COVID-19. And yet, after nearly a year of uncertainty, loss, and heartbreak, Alaska is leading the way in expanding vaccination access — providing hope that we may be turning a corner in our fight against COVID-19. As state leaders and Alaskans reflect on how far we’ve come together in this last year, it provides an opportunity to acknowledge the fundamental partnerships that have been vital in achievement of these milestones.

As the pandemic progressed in 2020 and infections soared across the state, alongside other minority groups, rural Alaska communities and Alaska Native people led the state in some of the highest case rates in the nation and incidents of severe infection or death of the disease. Social determinants of health — such as lack of access to adequate sanitation infrastructure, overcrowded homes and limited access to medical resources — were factors that contributed to this disparity and untimely loss of loved ones for many Alaskans.

And yet, the challenges brought on by the pandemic have underscored the tireless courage and resolve of frontline health care workers from communities large and small, rural and urban. After years of downward pressure on the state’s budget and continued spending reductions in the Division of Public Health, the pandemic highlighted the limitations and finite capacity of the State of Alaska. But collaboration with Alaska’s world-class tribal health system made it possible to quickly stand up COVID-19 testing statewide, expand much-needed contact tracing resources, and offer a network of clinics and hospital systems to deliver high-quality medical support. Now, as COVID-19 vaccines have been rolled out across the state, tribal health partners have been integral in supporting Alaska’s nationwide leadership in vaccination rates and the early-March expansion of access to the general public.

Since December, tribal health organizations have been quiet champions — working diligently to calculate complex logistics, charter flights, carry vaccines over frozen ice roads and ensure not a dose of vaccine goes to waste. As early as the second week of January, tribal health organizations across the state began using its Sovereign Nation Supplement of COVID-19 vaccine to expand eligibility criteria, efficiently offering vaccination to teachers, frontline essential workers and residents at large regardless of IHS eligibility, well before the state was able to. This supplement has expanded Alaska’s access to COVID-19 vaccine by adding more than 92,000 first doses to what the state is receiving from the federal government, which will save lives, protect families and escalate Alaska’s timeline as we work to reach herd immunity. Now, in a similar trend to what we are seeing in Alaska, tribal health systems have been essential in expanding vaccination access in Oklahoma and Washington.

Citing the disproportionate hardship felt by Alaska Native people throughout this pandemic and Alaska’s Sovereign Nation Supplement of vaccine, ANMC Administrator Dr. Robert Onders recently said, “For equitable outcomes, there needs to be disproportionate investment.” Health care, and response to COVID-19, is a team sport. Alaska’s tribal health system has leveraged federal resources and undertaken ambitious pandemic response endeavors that have benefited all Alaskans, and supported state response that has recently garnered the attention of national news. Quyana — thank you — to these unsung heroes.

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, from Bethel, is the chair of the Tribal Affairs Committee and the co-chair of the House Health and Social Services Committee. She represents House District 38.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon was born and raised in Dillingham. He represents Bristol Bay and the Aleutian Islands.

Rep. Neal Foster represents House District 39 in the Alaska State Legislature. He is co-chair of the House Finance Committee.

Rep. Josiah Patkotak, from Utqiaġvik, represents House District 40 in the Alaska State Legislature. He is chair of the House Resources Committee.

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