FORT APACHE INDIAN RESERVATION — According to Whiteriver Indian Health Service Clinical Director and Infection Specialist Dr. James McAuley, 50 members from the White Mountain Apache Tribe have already participated in the Pfizer vaccine study that is one of the six products in late-stage clinical trials in different categories.

Pfizer is the vaccine Indian Health Service believes it will receive. It is also expected that it will receive the Moderna, but will begin with the one that arrives first.

One of the requirements of the Pfizer vaccine is that it be kept very cold and IHS has the freezers that can handle that requirement which many other tribes do not have.

IHS will be distributing the vaccine based on the community’s ability to receive it. Officials anticipate that in a short time after the approval is received for the emergency use authorization of the vaccine by FDA that they will receive their first shipment.

Shipments will hopefully be several times a week, but are expected at least once a week. Because they will not get enough of the vaccine for every person at one time, McAuley said IHS will vaccinate those with the highest risk of exposure which is the healthcare workers and then will move on to the highest risk Tribal members.

“It is like a medicine. I can prescribe medicine for your blood pressure or diabetes,” said McAuley, “but if you do not put it into your mouth, it will do no good. Millions of dollars have been spent to create the vaccine but it does no good if we cannot get people to take it.”

McAuley said that it is important to know that the technology used has been around for decades and has been worked on for other diseases but has been pushed quickly now because of COVID-19 and its urgency. He said what people in the infectious disease community like to say is that it was done quickly because of all the research but no corners were cut.

Over 30,000 people have been enrolled in the Moderna vaccine trials, 40,000 plus in Pfizer and 40,000 in the Johnson & Johnson trials. This is much the same as any other studies that have been done for other vaccine studies. The difference is they were done quickly because of the resources given, and literally universities and people around the world started working on it right away.

Historically, for most vaccines, a company gets an idea, slowly works on it, checks it and then decides if it is worth their efforts. Things move slowly, not because it needs to move slowly but because of resources.

McAuley said that once the vaccine is received they will have full clinics, vaccines and vaccine sites for everyone. He said he understands that people get nervous about this but encouraged them to ask questions about the vaccine and any other health questions they may have because it is a shared decision.

“This disease is not just a cold,” said McAuley. “We are unfortunately seeing people dying from it, and honestly, we do not even know if you recover from COVID if there are residual effects to your lungs or heart or body. So, I would not hesitate to say to people who say I will just get the disease and recover, you might recover — you are likely to recover — but I would strongly urge the people to take the vaccine over the disease with what we know at this point.”

One of the questions posed during the interactive forum related to possible effects from the vaccine shot. Both McAuley and National Institute of Health Director of Tribal Health Research Dr. Dave Wilson answered similarly saying that a person could have a sore arm, have muscle aches or foggy thinking but the vaccine has not produced any severe levels of discomfort.

Derrick Leslie with White Mountain Apache Tribe’s Emergency Operation Center (WMAT EOC) said that the EOC has been a working on developing the Tribe’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution priority list. They have been consulting with the IHS Pharmacy, the Incident Command Center, the White Mountain Service Unit Pharmacy and currently public safety and front line workers are at the top of the priority list.

Elders are also a priority in the ranking and once the emergency use authorization is received from the FDA, EOC will be working with the long term care facility with whom they have already been in touch.

Leslie said these are on-going conversations which they are having which include the health director who has been involved in state and national conversations on these subjects.

Complete details of the full interview regarding vaccine questions and plans, can be found on Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood’s Facebook page or search in your browser for

Barbara Bruce is a reporter for the White Mountain Independent, covering arts and entertainment on the Mountain and the Pinetop-Lakeside town government.

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