The Day – Mashantuckets rolling out COVID-19 vaccine to tribal members, casino employees

Mashantucket — While the number of COVID-19 cases surges in southeastern Connecticut, the disease continues to be held in check on the Mashantucket Pequot reservation, according to the tribe’s chief medical officer, Dr. Setu Vora, a pulmonologist who has experience with infectious diseases.

Few cases have been detected among the tribe’s 1,100 members, Vora said Friday, and none has been fatal.

Late last month, the tribe began administering its first 200 doses of the Moderna vaccine, first inoculating members of the Mashantucket Pequot Fire Department and then tribal health care workers, tribal police officers, tribal elders and tribal councilors. In the weeks ahead, the tribe plans to make the vaccine available to the rest of the tribe and to employees of Foxwoods Resort Casino, the tribe’s economic engine.

The Mohegan Tribe also has begun administering the vaccine to front-line workers and tribal members, a tribal spokesman said this week.

“There’s been a lot of excitement about it and some nervousness, some hesitancy at the same time,” Vora said of the Mashantuckets’ rollout. “We’re not trying to force it on anyone. We had informational meetings — ask-me-anything type sessions — that I think helped put people’s minds at ease. The initial response has been fairly good.”

The tribe has received a second shipment of 200 doses and has sought to quickly administer them in keeping with a strategy dubbed “80 in 80.” It calls for administering 80% of the vaccine doses within 80 hours of receiving them, and vaccinating 80% of the tribal community — tribal members living on and near the reservation and Foxwoods employees — within 80 days of the start of the campaign. That will involve vaccinating 5,000 to 6,000 people, each with two doses, Vora said.

Achieving that goal could confer herd immunity on the reservation, he added, meaning so many people would be vaccinated, the disease couldn’t spread.

“Of course, we don’t live in a bubble. People leave the reservation to go shopping, to go to work, to meet their friends. We need the greater community around us to be safe, too,” Vora said.

Connecticut, which has made COVID-19 shots available to health care workers, medical first responders and residents of long-term care facilities in Phase 1a of the statewide vaccine rollout, is allowing those 75 and older to be inoculated starting next week. Phase 1b also will soon include front-line essential workers; individuals and staff in congregate settings; those between the ages of 65 and 74; and those between 16 and 64 who have underlying health conditions.

Vora, who grew up in India, served a fellowship at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center from 2002 to 2005, a period in which he was part of a research team that dealt with an earlier coronavirus outbreak. An East Lyme resident, he has a private practice in Norwich but has been devoting his full attention to managing the tribe’s pandemic response. Given the option of working directly with the federal government or state and local agencies to get the vaccine, he said the Mashantuckets chose the latter, partnering with the state Department of Public Health, Ledge Light Health District and United Community & Family Services.

COVID-19 has devastated some tribes in the Southwest and elsewhere, including the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. Earlier in the pandemic, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that the incidence of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases among American Indians and Alaska Natives in 23 states other than Connecticut was 3.5 times that of non-Hispanic whites. Mortality was nearly double.

“Thankfully, we have not had a mortality, which is not to say it can’t happen,” Vora said. “We’ve had sporadic, few cases on the reservation. In the last few weeks, we’ve had two or three cases.”

He said most of the cases the tribe has seen have involved young people, presumably because of the requirements of their jobs and their tendency to let their guard down when socializing.

“Our elders have been protected. They’ve been able to isolate really well,” Vora said.

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