Indian Health Service steps up COVID, other vaccine push

PHOENIX (AP) — The Indian Health Service announced Thursday that all tribal members covered by the federal agency will be offered a vaccine at every appointment when appropriate, under a new vaccine strategy.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, American Indians and Alaska Natives have had some of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates across the country.

But Indigenous people are especially vulnerable to vaccine-preventable illness, and IHS officials recently noticed fewer patients have been getting vaccines for COVID-19. Monkeypox is now an additional health concern.

Patients in the system are also beginning to fall behind in more routine inoculations, such as jabs for childhood diseases like measles, mumps and rubella, as well as shingles shots for older adults.

“With time passing, we are seeing some COVID fatigue, and we feel we aren’t where we need to be,” Dr. Loretta Christensen, IHS chief medical officer, said in a brief interview before the announcement was posted online. “With our vulnerable population, it is critical to reenergize our staff to get everyone the vaccinations they need.”

Christensen said in a posted announcement that she had directed all care sites in the system “to respond to this important call to action to increase vaccine coverage and protect against vaccine preventable illnesses in tribal communities.”

“Every patient at every encounter will be offered every recommended vaccine when appropriate.” she wrote. “IHS will exempt encounters in which a vaccine would not be appropriate such as when someone has a moderate or severe acute illness.”

Christensen told the agency’s staff in an additional message that she was encouraging everyone to get an updated COVID-19 and flu shots as winter approaches.

“We can work together to protect our friends, relatives, elders and our communities as we gather across the country for the holiday season,” she said.

The Indian Health Service is the health care system for federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Natives in the United States.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.