Incentive programs that reward tribal members for getting their COVID-19 vaccine shots have helped the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes exceed statewide inoculation rates, tribal leaders told Wyoming lawmakers Thursday.
While the Northern Arapaho tribe has surpassed 70% vaccination rate among members, the Eastern Shoshone tribe has reached about 50% and aims to hit the 70% range, tribal representatives reported to the Select Committee on Tribal Relations.
The Eastern Shoshone tribe is offering $100 per shot, or $200 for a complete vaccination, Business Council Member Michael Ute said. The tribe is a little “late to the game compared to the Northern Arapaho tribe,” Ute said, but he estimated that 1,000 members have collected their incentive so far.
“That’s pretty good for us,” Ute said. The tribe is also planning to launch a larger vaccine reward for its entire membership once it hits the goal of 70%, he said.
That would follow the model of the Northern Arapaho tribe, which launched a two-phase initiative program in response to rising cases this summer, said Ryan Ortiz, the tribe’s chief financial officer. The first phase offered $50 per shot and $100 for the singe-dose Johnson & Johnson shot with the goal of increasing the tribe’s vaccination rate to 70%, he said.
“That’s motivation for people to go and get it — cash in hand,” he said.
When the tribe announced Sept. 27 that it had reached 70% vaccination, it offered an even larger incentive: The chance for vaccinated members to qualify for a $500 prize.
From the pandemic’s onset, leaders on the Wind River Indian Reservation have been more proactive with testing and restrictions than the rest of the state. Both tribes were well ahead of the curve on early free testing, stay-at-home orders and virtual-only school.
Even with those measures, the pandemic has hit reservation communities hard. Early numbers showed disproportionate deaths among tribal communities.
After easing restrictions as the pandemic ebbed, the Wind River Inter-Tribal Council in August reinstated health orders that mandate masks indoors or at outdoor gatherings, cap indoor capacity, mandate vaccinations for those who work with children and require schools to offer the option for virtual learning.
The Northern Arapaho Tribe in particular has been strident with orders aimed at limiting virus transmission. In early September, the tribe announced that all tribal employees were required to have at least one COVID-19 vaccination by Sept. 17. The tribe is also conducting weekly mandatory testing of employees, Ortiz said.
As one of the largest employers in Fremont County, “we feel like that was very important to ensure the safety of our employees, and also the families who they come in contact with,” Northern Arapaho Business Council Chair Jordan Dresser told lawmakers Thursday.
Some employees have quit over the vaccine mandate, he said.
“But as an at-will employer, we have that right,” Dresser said. “And as a sovereign nation, we also have that right. So, those are the things that we did to ensure the safety of our people.”
It wasn’t an easy decision, Ortiz said, adding that the tribe also terminated some employees for failing to comply.
“I applaud the council for taking that difficult stand because it’s unpopular, especially in Wyoming,” he said.
The reservation’s vaccination rate has surged ahead of much of the rest of the state. As of Friday, the Wyoming Department of Health reported a 38% statewide vaccination rate, making it one of the least-vaccinated states.
There was a bit of a hurdle getting Eastern Shoshone tribal members to take a first shot, Ute said, as some were apprehensive. “Most of them were on the fence so it wasn’t, it wasn’t … one way or the other concerning politics or anything. It was just, ‘I don’t know if I should get it or not,’” he said.
“With the vaccine incentive, we were able to kind of push those people towards getting that first vaccine which is, like I said, it’s really good,” he said.
The overarching goal, Ute said, is to drive down deaths and hospitalizations. The tribe has also established employee mandates that include quarantine measures for positive tests, and offers voluntary weekly testing, he said. American Rescue Plan funds have helped pay for administrative leave for quarantine as well as other programs.
Ortiz of the Northern Arapaho tribe said the hope is that the recent measures will help turn the tides.
“We’re hoping we’re starting to see a dip in numbers, and we think that we attribute that probably to the vaccinations,” he said.