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BABB, Montana (AP) – On a cloudy spring day, hundreds of people climbed into their cars on the Canadian side of the border crossing that separates Alberta from Montana. They had been driving for hours and camped in their vehicles in hopes of receiving the hottest product of the season, a COVID-19 vaccine, from a Native American tribe that gave their overdoses.
The Blackfeet tribe in northern Montana last month provided about 1,000 surplus vaccines to First Nations relatives and others at the border, in an illustration of the disparity in speed at which the United States and the United States Canada distributes doses. Although more than 30% of adults in the US are fully vaccinated, in Canada this figure is about 3%.
Among those who received the vaccine at the Piegan-Carway border crossing were Sherry Cross Child and Shane Little Bear from Stand Off, Alberta, about 50 miles north of the border.
They recited a prayer in the language of the black foot before the nurses began administering shots, with the mountain head – sacred to the black-footed people – rising in the distance. The prayer was dedicated to people seeking refuge from the virus, Cross Child said.
Cross Child and her husband have family and friends in Montana, but have not been able to visit them since the border closed last spring for exceptional trips.
“It’s been stressful because we had some deaths in the family and they couldn’t come,” he said. “Just for the support, they trust us and we trust them. It’s been tough.”
More than 95% of the approximately 10,000 Blackfeet Reserve residents who are eligible for the vaccine are fully immunized, after the state has given priority to Native American communities (among the most vulnerable U.S. populations) in the early stages of their vaccination campaign.
The tribe received vaccine assignments from both the Montana health department and the federal Indian Health Service, leaving some doses unused. With an expiration date fast approaching, he addressed other nations in the Black Foot Confederation, which includes the Blackfeet and three southern Alberta tribes that share language and culture.
“The idea was to reach out to our brothers and sisters who live in Canada,” said Robert DesRosier, manager of emergency services for the Blackfeet tribe. “And then the question arose: what if a non-tribal member wants a vaccine? Well, it’s about saving lives. We’re not going to leave anyone behind.”
The tribe distributed the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for 4 days in late April at the remote port of entry to Piegan Land, amid a background of rolling pastures to the east and the snow-capped peaks of Glacier National Park in the west.
As the news of the effort spread in Canada, first through word of mouth, then through social platforms and media reports, people traveled from afar. Some drove five hours from the city of Edmonton.
The effort was particularly timely, as Alberta sees an increase in new cases of respiratory viruses, with a record of cases arriving this month.
Bonnie Healy, health administrator for the Blackfoot Confederation, said she was glad the vaccination effort had reached both first nations and other communities in the province.
“We have family members living in these areas,” he said. “If we can get these places safe, it’s safe for our kids to go to school there. It’s safe for our seniors to go shopping in their stores.”
Canadians who received the vaccines were not allowed to last in the United States. They returned home with letters from health officials exempting them from the mandatory 14-day quarantine imposed on all who entered the country.
The tribe initiative is one of the few associations that have emerged between communities in the United States and Canada, where residents may have to wait weeks or months to make a shot. Canada has lagged behind in vaccinating its population because it does not have the capacity to manufacture the vaccine and has had to rely on the global supply chain for life-saving, like many other countries.
In Alaska, Gov. Mike Dunleavy has offered COVID-19 vaccines to residents of Stewart, British Columbia, in hopes that it could lead the Canadian government to ease restrictions between that city and Alaska’s border community, Hyder, to a couple of miles away. In North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum and Manitoba Prime Minister Brian Pallister last month unveiled a plan to administer vaccines to Manitoba-based truck drivers transporting goods from the United States to the United States.
On the Montana side, at the border, vaccine recipients were often emotional, shedding tears, shouting words of gratitude through the car windows as they drove away and handing nurses gifts like chocolate and clothes. Some shared stories about what the vaccine meant to them: the ability to safely care for vulnerable loved ones, reunite with grandparents, or travel again.
Recipients included 17-year-olds who were on the country’s priority list and parents who camped with their young children in the back seat.
Maxwell Stein, 25, who plays the horn with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, arrived at the border crossing at 6 p.m. Wednesday and spent the night in his car, finally reaching the front of the line toward 10 a.m. Thursday.
“It wasn’t amazing, but you do what you need to get a vaccine,” he said. He predicted that if he had waited in Canada, he would probably get the first dose in late June and it would be a few months before he was fully vaccinated.
The Canadian government has recommended extending the interval between the two doses of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines from about 3 weeks to 4 months, with the goal of rapidly inoculating more people in the midst of shortages. Some who attended Blackfeet clinics had already gotten their first shot in Canada. More than 30% of the Canadian population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, but about 3% have received the doses recommended by drug manufacturers to achieve full immunity. Canadian officials say partial immunity is better than none.
“It’s unfortunate because a shot only slightly protects you,” Stein said. “With vaccines, I think it’s very important to get the right dose in the right amount of time, so that the body increases resistance.”
When Stein learned to talk about the border vaccine clinic, he did not hesitate about the long journey, especially as a professional musician who has a lot of free time and many canceled concerts.
“Really, I have no excuse. If I had to drive 10 hours to get the Pfizer or the Moderna, I probably would have done it,” he said.
Iris Samuels is a member of the body of The Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a national nonprofit service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on covert issues.