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COVID-19 vaccine is ‘the best way to protect all of us—especially our elders’

“I know people who have had COVID and are dealing with a lot of symptoms months later,” said Colette August, program manager at Tahoma Indian Center. “Hair loss, lung issues—these are happening. In my mind, whatever side-effects you have from the vaccine are less than anything from the actual virus.” 

She and her staff provides resources for people experiencing homelessness and other barriers on the Eastside of Tacoma.

They hand out meals and help with laundry. They send and receive mail. They help folks get what they need to survive. Earlier this month, that meant COVID-19 vaccine.

Colette August

Tahoma Indian Center partnered with Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department to bring vaccine to the community with a pop-up clinic on-site. Colette called it an extension of the center’s mission.

“It was about providing that network of support,” she said. “Showing them that, ‘We’re meeting you where you are at.’ That’s important.”

Now she wants to help others find ways to get COVID-19 vaccine.

Building trust.

Many in tribal communities harbor a deep lack of trust in government and healthcare providers after centuries of systemic mistreatment.

“I think the main thing you can do is assure them that, with your best judgement, you trust in the vaccine and the medicine,” she said.

She sees similar distrust from many people experiencing homelessness.

“So many times there will be people who have pretty serious health conditions that won’t go to the doctor,” she said. “You see a lot of times in the homeless community they will only go to the emergency room when it’s really severe.”

A lot of people still don’t know COVID-19 vaccine is always free, whether or not you have insurance. That alone can help persuade many on the fence to get vaccinated, Colette said.

She sees herself and others at Tahoma Indian Center as not only trusted messengers for the community but often the only source of information.

“If you’re homeless and don’t have a TV, you’re not watching the news,” she said. “You don’t usually read the newspaper as much. But you’re getting your information from somewhere. A lot of the time, that ends up being us.”

Staying safe.

Colette knows firsthand the effects of COVID-19. Some of her friends and family members are still battling the disease.

Those experiences left her little doubt the vaccine is the best path forward.

“That’s why I got vaccinated,” she said. “That’s why I encourage others to do so as well.”

To achieve community immunity, we need to get as many people as possible 16 and up vaccinated against COVID-19. All the available vaccines limit the spread of COVID and lessen the severity of the illness.

“You hear about the long-lasting effects that COVID has for your body,” she said. “We still don’t know what all those could be. It’s not worth the risk.”

Protecting the community.

Colette wanted to bring vaccine to Tahoma Indian Center because she sees the obstacles people there face daily, and the opportunities they miss out on.

“I just think it’s a way for us to be able to protect our community and to be one step closer to having a COVID-free environment,” she said.

Vaccination rates for American Indians and Alaskan Natives are high in Pierce County largely because the Puyallup Tribe of Indians distributes vaccine efficiently to its community.

That’s how Colette got vaccinated. For others, that is not an option.

“We’ve wanted to have a clinic here for some time,” she said. “We have quite a few people who are part of our community who either can’t use other tribal services or maybe it’s just a trust factor. A lot of times they just trust us here.”

All of us together.

“I see a lot of resilience in Indian Country,” Colette said. “Our people, their main way of coping is through humor and love. It’s a beautiful thing to see community come together in that way to support each other.”

Colette was able to bring vaccine to her community, but she wants to do more. She knows a lot of people want to get vaccinated but don’t know where to start.

“The number one barrier I see is transportation,” she said. “The majority of the clients we serve are walking. They don’t have bus passes; they don’t have cars.”

The Health Department can help with that. Our partnership with Around the Sound offers free rides to and from vaccination clinics. To learn more, call (253) 858-7088 or go to atstrans.org. Pierce Transit also gives free bus rides to people going to vaccine appointments. Just call (253) 581-8000 (press 1, then press 1 again) or visit piercetransit.org.

If you can’t leave home, we can also bring vaccine to you! Call (253) 649-1412, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. 7 days a week to request that service.

Everyone faces different challenges, Colette said. But together we can overcome so many and make sure everyone who is eligible gets the vaccine.

“It’s the best way to protect all of us,” Colette said. “Especially our elders.”

It’s also important to take other steps to prevent the spread of COVID:

Learn more at tpchd.org/vaxtothefuture.