First COVID-19 vaccine administered in Cherokee 

by Dec 16, 2020Front Page, Health, NEWS ka-no-he-da





Victoria Harlan was sewing one of 11 quilts when she received a phone call. 

Sewing is her version of practicing self-care, a must for relieving the stresses of working in an emergency room. Monday night, Dec. 14 was one where she was simply pushing to get some Christmas presents done for her staff. 

Victoria Harlan receives the COVID-19 vaccine from Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority nurse Brooke Walkingstick on Wednesday, Dec. 16. (JONAH LOSSIAH/One Feather photos)

Ironically, it was a work call. Sonya Wachacha, Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority (CIHA) director of nursing, was the name that flashed on Harlan’s watch. She immediately took the call. 

“When Sonya called me at home Monday night, I thought she was going to ask me who would I recommend. Because we collaborate that way,” said Harlan.  “I was thinking. I’m thinking, thinking. And she said, ‘Victoria we were wondering if you’d consider it.’ And, I said I don’t have to consider it, I’d be honored.”

It made perfect sense why they selected Victoria Harlan – a tribal elder, former U.S. Marine, and she has been the Emergency Room nurse manager at CIHA for the past 11 years. 

“I can’t even tell you how overwhelming it is to get to be that person. Because we’ve been watching the news with people who they’ve selected. In most places it’s been the director of nursing or the CEO or the head doctor or something,” said Harlan. 

“I started to cry because I don’t think of myself first because I wasn’t raised that way to start with. You do for others. That’s what we do here in this place. We’re here to do for other people. Because when you start thinking about yourself first then you’re going to miss something.”

Harlan was the first of many that received the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday, Dec. 16. The CIHA has a three-phase system for getting the vaccine into the community. Phase one is frontline healthcare workers and elders.

On the week of Dec. 14, the CIHA received 900 doses of this vaccine, with a little less than half of those being reserved for the Choctaw Nation, according to CIHA CEO Casey Cooper. The hospital was expecting the vaccine as soon as last week, and Cooper says that they are ecstatic to have it in Cherokee. 

“We’re very relieved. Now that the vaccine is on sight, we have a high degree of confidence in our ability to handle, and store, and inventory, and actually prepare and deliver the vaccine. So, a lot of the uncertainty is gone now,” said Cooper. 

This the pharmacy area when the vaccines are mixed and prepared. Each vile contains five doses.

2020 has been a year all about adaptability, and that is been even more true the last month. COVID-19 numbers across North Carolina and the United States are surging and talks of vaccines rushed to the forefront. On Tuesday, Dec. 8, England became the first country to offer a vaccine to the public. Just three days later, the Federal Drug Administration approved the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use in the US, and hospitals across the country are now receiving doses. 

Cooper says that there are few guaranteed dates at this time, but things are moving forward quickly. He says that CIHA has assurance from Pfizer that they will be receiving the second dose shipment in time. 

“We understand from Indian Health Service and others that Moderna could come as soon as next or two weeks from now. We’re pretty confident that it’s going to come and we’re going to move right into our next priority population pretty soon,” said Cooper. 

“We think hopefully by January we will be well into our lower priority populations. By the end of January.”

Chris McKnight, CIHA Pandemic Preparedness and Response coordinator, said that those dates really come down to one aspect.  “It’s really going to rely on the supply chain. How fast can the manufactures put the vaccine out. Whenever there’s a new medication or a new vaccine on the market it tends to take time to ramp up that production. Thankfully, they’ve been able to do some of these process in parallel for these vaccines. So, as soon as it’s approved them immediately have a supply. Our hope is that they’ll be able to maintain that production so that we can consistently have it here on sight to those that are interested.”

McKnight says that he feels vaccine is by far the best option moving forward, but he knows that many people in the community are skeptical of the vaccine. 

“I understand the apprehension. It is your body.  It’s your health.  It’s your choice. So, I want you to make a good, informed decision. I hope that that decision comes from solid information. I hope it comes from the actual research and studies.”

For those that can receive the vaccine, the current process is a simple one. They will follow a corridor to a sign-in table. After they finish signing the necessary documents, they will go into the vaccination clinic, which is a room adjacent to the sign-in station. A nurse will review the paperwork, sign it themselves, and then administer the vaccine. The CIHA will then require you to relax in a waiting room for 15 minutes to monitor if there is a rare case of a serious reaction. There you will be able to have any questions answered and set a date for the second dose of the vaccine in three weeks.

CIHA says that they will continue to release more information regarding vaccinations and dates when it becomes available. The general public will receive the vaccine as part of ‘phase three’ of the distribution plan.

Victoria Harlan has now gone through the process and said she didn’t feel a thing. She’s just elated that the day is finally here. 

“I’m truly honored. I don’t know what else to say. I’m excited, I hope the line picks up and stays backed up the rest of the day when people find out it’s available today. But at the same time, I certainly understand the apprehension, the just not knowing. Again, my response is I’d rather do this than take my chances with COVID. I don’t think I’m taking a chance at all.”