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First lady, health officials praise Tribal health care system in Alaska in COVID-19 vaccinations

First Lady Jill Biden visited Anchorage on Wednesday to talk with health officials and get a glimpse of how Tribal health care works in Alaska.

During First Lady Jill Biden’s visit to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, she called Alaska’s Tribal health care system the gold standard. 

“The consortium is setting the gold standard in supporting rural communities,” Biden said. “I'm so excited to see what this organization does under your leadership and to share what I've learned here with our team in D.C.”

Doctor Biden arrived Wednesday in Anchorage, Alaska, ahead of her trip to Tokyo, Japan, to lead the U.S. delegation in the Summer Olympic Games. 

Biden landed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson that morning -- and traveled via motorcade to the Alaska Native Medical Campus -- where she spoke to reporters at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. 

Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink and ANTHC President Valerie Nurr'araaluk Davidson greeted the first lady and talked about the collaboration between the state, Tribal health orgs, and their federal partners. Here’s Davidson:

“With the support of our Tribal and our federal partners and our state partners, we've been able to obtain early testing supplies and also vaccinations in ways that really focused on equity that allowed our populations to be covered,” Davidson said. “Alaska Native people and American Indian people in our state of Alaska were four times more likely to die because of COVID-19. And so we knew and with your support and with the state support, we were able to get those vaccinations out to people very, very quickly.” 

Zink acknowledged that the pandemic put the spotlight on a lot of inequities -- but the collaboration between Tribes, Tribal health and the state has better served Alaska as a whole. 

First Lady Jill BIden is greeted at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium by Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink and ANTHC President Valerie Nurr'araaluk Davidson on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Biden traveled to Anchorage, Alaska, in a stop before heading to Tokyo to lead the U.S. delegation at the Summer Olympic Games. (Photo by Tripp Crouse/KNBA)

“A big part of my learning for this pandemic has been learning through their history and how they've been impacted from every epidemic and pandemic worldwide,” Zink said. “And that has really shaped their drive and how we've been able to respond throughout this pandemic. The Tribal health system in Alaska really is the backbone for the health care in the state in many places it’s the only health care system in the area for Tribal members and non-Tribal members.” 

Biden gave credit to health organizations like Southcentral Foundation and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium for their vaccination work.

But the first lady’s visit also coincided with a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in the state-- and she acknowledged there was more work to do. 

“I know that you're not done either,” Jill Biden said. “And even as we celebrate the progress we've made, we know that this last push is really the hardest of all. I mean, look at the numbers today how they're going up. And it's people who are not vaccinated who are going into the hospitals, who are getting COVID.”

After the first lady left to fly to Tokyo, ANTHC President Valerie Davidson spoke with KNBA. 

“Covid-19 is incredibly, incredibly easy to transmit from person to person. And as we're seeing the Delta variant, as we're seeing it change a little bit, people are relaxing a little bit," Davidson said. "But we really need to see is people being … really careful and do whatever you can to get folks in your life vaccinated. Whether it's you stopped to check your mail at the post office, you're stopping at the store, you're stopping to to get prevention work done at the clinic. It's really important to you don't realize really how many people you come into contact every day. And the great thing about Alaska is that people really look out for each other. And this is one small way that we can look out for each other and make sure that as many Alaskans make it through this pandemic as possible.”

Davidson says the praise from the first lady was heartwarming, but encouraged others to double-check the facts when people are told not to get vaccinated. And she also encouraged others to be vigilant like the villages -- even coining a new word.

“It's really important for folks to continue to be vigilant. Or as I said earlier, I made a mistake and I called it villagent. But I think that's our new word, to be villagent, because villages are being very careful. They're vaccinating the majority of their populations of their citizens. And we all could take a lesson from our small communities and our Tribal communities.”

Biden will travel to Tokyo for the Olympics, and then to Hawaii, to visit a vaccinations clinic before returning to D.C.

KNBA's Hannah Bissett for contributing to this report. Special thanks to Izzy Ross for the editing help.

Originally from the Midwest, Tripp Crouse (Ojibwe, a descendent of Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, pronouns: they/them) has 15-plus years in print, web and radio journalism. Tripp first moved to Alaska in 2016 to work with KTOO Public Media in Juneau. And later moved to Anchorage in 2018 to work with KNBA and Koahnic Broadcast Corporation. Tripp currently works for Spruce Root in Juneau, Alaska. Tripp also served as chair of the Station Advisory Committee for Native Public Media.
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