TAHLEQUAH -- The Cherokee Nation received its first shipment of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine Dec. 14.
According to the tribe, 975 doses were delivered from the Indian Health Service.
"That was done and put into our ultra-cold freezer this morning about 10:30," Health Services Executive Director Dr. Stephen Jones told Tribal Councilors during a Health Committee meeting later in the day. "We will start administering the vaccine at 7 a.m. (Dec. 15) to our health care workers who are on the front line."
Once the vaccine has been given to health care workers, first responders and at the CN's elder care facility, "we'll move on into our other tiers as more allocations become available," Jones said.
"We're not ready to move into that next 65-and-older tier yet," he added. "As we get closer to it, we'll get more information out how they can sign up."
First-language Cherokee speakers will also be a priority, Jones said.
Another phase of the tribe's vaccination plan will include teachers and child care staff, food security workers, shelter staff to those under age 55 with underlying health conditions. Next up would be the general Cherokee population and those users of CN Health Services and their beneficiaries.
The CN is getting its vaccines directly from the IHS.
"We had to make a choice on whether we receive the vaccine through the state or through the Indian Health Service," Jones said. "The state seems to be confused in a lot of ways on one hand not knowing what the other hand is doing. So we felt like that was the best for us. As a result, we've already received our first allocation."
The vaccine will be administered in two doses, with the second given exactly 21 days after the first, according to the tribe.
"There is no research to show that you have any kind of immunity if you do not receive the second injection," Jones said. "It's a very technical vaccine."
The freezer in which the vaccine is stored will only be opened twice per day, Jones said.
"It takes approximately two hours once we access the freezer to pull out enough vaccine to use, to get it warmed to room temperature and diluted," Jones said. "Once it's warmed and diluted, then we have six hours to use that vaccine or it spoils."
So far this year, the CN has administered more than 62,600 COVID-19 tests, Jones said. Of those, more than 7,700 patients have tested positive for the coronavirus. An estimated 1,800 are "fighting it currently," Jones added.
Treatment options for infected patients who qualify include the antiviral medication remdesivir, which requires a hospital stay, and bamlanivimab, an outpatient drug.
The CN is also involved in a clinical trial with California-based biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences Inc., for the use of remdesivir also in an outpatient setting.
"That study is still currently going forward," Jones said.
The monoclonal antibody bamlanivimab, developed by AbCellera Biologics and Eli Lilly, is administered by infusion, Jones said.
"It takes about three hours," he added. "We were allocated 500 doses and we've administered 131 doses as of this morning (Dec. 14). The outcomes from that medication have been really good."
Chief of Staff Todd Enlow said operations inside the Human Resources building were suspended due to a high number of positive COVID-19 cases.
"We went back in and tested over the weekend and sanitized that space, as well," he said. "To the question as far as trying to keep health staff coming in the door, we still continued orientation in another building today."