CASS LAKE -- Health agencies in the Leech Lake Nation that partnered to administer vaccines have been honored by the Minnesota Department of Health.

According to a release, the MDH gave its 2021 Minnesota Rural Health Team Award to the Cass Lake Indian Health Service and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Health Division. In 15 events by the two agencies, 12,096 vaccines were provided to residents from across the region.

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe became likely the first tribal nation in the country to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as the initial doses were administered on Dec. 14, 2020.

From January through April, the tribal agencies collaborated to develop and implement a mass immunization model that would increase access to COVID-19 vaccines for rural Minnesotans.

While both organizations traditionally provide care to eligible Native Americans, the collective team provided vaccinations to anyone who needed a dose. The team’s plan to provide vaccinations to all regardless of demographics was approved by the Indian Health Service and Tribal leadership.

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Of the vaccines administered, 57% of those self-identified as non-Native American. Additionally, 70% of the community's elders were vaccinated before it was a national goal and 70% of Cass Lake Indian Health Service’s user population was vaccinated before President Joe Biden's July 4 goal.

The Cass Lake IHS and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Health Division team are considered one of the best and fastest vaccine administration teams in the state, the release said. Their vaccination model is now considered a best practice and has garnered the attention of federal, state and private sector partners across the nation.

"When the Bemidji Area Indian Health Service Director received a directive from the White House to provide assistance with COVID vaccinations in Michigan, team members flew there to recreate and carry out two successful missions," the release said. "They have demonstrated that a small health care organization and its community partners can rapidly plan and deploy health care measures within a 48- to 72-hour window for the entire community."