BILLINGS — COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on Montana’s tribal communities, and recent data show that close to 30 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in Montana are among American Indians. The state heeded the call of local advocates and prioritized American Indians within the next phase (Phase 1b) of vaccine roll-out, to begin on January 15.

Public health advisor to Western Native Voice, Dr. Cora Neumann, is a member of the Montana COVID-19 Vaccination Plan Coordination Team. Over the past month (December), she has brought Western Native Voice’s priorities to the table, urging the state to expedite the timeline for communities hardest hit.

Phase 1b recipients include people who are over 75 years of age, frontline essential workers, those residing in congregate care and correctional facilities, and American Indians and other people of color who may be at elevated risk for COVID-19. Vaccinations will also be allocated through the Indian Health Service (IHS) to 5 of 8 tribal governments, all five Urban Indian Health Centers and all IHS sites.

“Since a state of emergency was declared in Montana in March, tribal governments and Native leaders have responded consistently and effectively to keep their communities safe. Unfortunately, due to pre-existing health and socio-economic disparities among Native communities - and in some cases due to resistance to mask mandates and gathering limits in surrounding communities - Montana’s tribal communities have experienced devastating loss. I am grateful that our state has responded to our call to prioritize American Indians in Phase 1b,” stated Dr. Cora Neumann, who is also founder of the public health advocacy group We Are Montana.

Marci McLean, Executive Director of Western Native Voice, applauded this development. “Since May, we have been involved in COVID relief through our mutual aid fund, COVID safety training and weekly live social media events. Although political advocacy and getting out the vote is our highest priority, none of this matters if our people aren’t safe. We are very appreciative that our voices were heard and our most vulnerable people will be prioritized to receive the vaccine. We look forward to supporting vaccine rollout across Montana’s Native people,” McLean shared.

In an effort to slow the spread and protect and support Native communities, since May this year, Western Native Voice and We Are Montana have supported COVID relief efforts across the state. Efforts to date have included the facilitation and distribution of over $250,000 in COVID relief, including PPE, food aid, water heaters to the elderly, temporary tent housing for the homeless and more; as well as training over 400 tribal and community leaders in COVID Safety. This work will continue until the Covid-19 is effectively controlled in the state.

Western Native Voice is a non-profit, non-partisan social justice organization working to inspire Native leadership through community organizing, education, leadership, and advocacy. With seven percent of Montana’s population being Native American living almost evenly split between reservation and urban areas, WNV organizes in both rural and urban communities using a culturally tailored community organizing and citizen education model to build Native leadership.

We Are Montana supports local leaders in their work to strengthen our public health systems and improve health care outcomes for every Montanan. We Are Montana’s current focus is COVID relief and public health leadership programming across Montana’s rural and Native communities. Together with our partners, WAM offers online resources and trainings with policy, public health and political leaders from across Montana and the country; and strengthens public health networks among rural and Native communities.

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