Meskwaki Health Services receives national award

Meskwaki Health Clinic Nurse Christie Morgan delivers a COVID-19 vaccine during a clinic held at the Meskwaki Tribal Center on Feb. 21, 2021. The tribal health department was recently notified that they would be receiving the Heroes in Health award by the National Indian Health Board. -- Photo courtesy of Meskwaki Media

The National Indian Health Board (NIHB) will be awarding the Meskwaki Health Clinic with its most prestigious award, the “Heroes in Health Award”. The award will be presented during a virtual ceremony on Oct. 6.

Located in Washington DC on Capitol Hill, the NIHB non-profit organization provides a variety of services to Indian Tribes including advocacy, policy formation, regulatory tracking, and Indian health research. Annually, they recognize a small group of people and organizations who demonstrate outstanding service in the quest to improve Native health and seek to honor the good work being done all around Indian Country.

One of only a handful of agencies receiving this year’s award, the health care team at the Meskwaki Health Clinic worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic, providing more than 6,000 COVID-19 shots to the Settlement’s residents and staff, as well as to under-served communities throughout central Iowa.

As a tribe of just over 1,450 people, the health clinic served more than four times their tribe’s population, providing life-saving shots to anyone wishing to be vaccinated. For this, the NIHB seeks to thank and award the Meskwaki Nation for their outstanding service to Tribal communities amid the trying times of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It takes a great team to lead in an enormous project like this, and we have an outstanding staff who really stepped up to take on the challenge,” Health Services Director Rudy Papakee said. “When the pandemic hit, we brainstormed about how we could help. With those initial planning efforts, the staff was ready to help be a part of the solution early on.”

Meskwaki Health Clinic Benefits Coordinator Gloria Fonseca helps with check-in during a COVID-19 vaccine clinic on the Meskwaki Settlement on April 28, 2021. -- Photo courtesy of Meskwaki Media

Leading the way, Papakee and his team by-passed the state’s mandates to get earlier shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine via the federal government’s Indian Health Services.

“I felt the connection with the Indian Health Service was going to be much stronger,” Papakee said. “They made some promises right from the beginning that once they got it, they’d get it into our hands. Looking back, that decision was integral to our early success.”

With an early vaccination supply and a willing community ready to receive the shot, the Meskwaki Settlement as a whole held a much higher vaccination rate than much of the U.S. early on and was able to remain virus free for most of the summer. Additionally, staff was able to expand services, offering shots to people of all ages outside of the Settlement and throughout central Iowa.

Through federal COVID-19 funding, the clinic purchased a mobile vaccine clinic serving local school districts like South Tama, East Marshall and Marshalltown, as well as districts in larger communities like Newton and North High School in Des Moines.

Staff worked extended hours and traveled to numerous locations ensuring the vaccine reached as many individuals as possible, particularly under-served populations, elders, and youth. They provided walk-in clinics at multiple locations including their own clinic, Toledo Heights, Des Moines’ downtown Juneteenth Celebration and locally through the Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel.

Students walk into the gym at North High School in Des Moines for a COVID-19 vaccine clinic on May 6, 2021. The clinic was put on by the Meskwaki Health Clinic as part of their mobile clinic program. -- Photo by Phil Roeder/Des Moines Public Schools

Moreover, Meskwaki staff continue to work through the evolving landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic and still offer the vaccine to anybody requesting one. Their goal is to provide accurate vaccine information and help dispel anti-vaccine hesitancy issues through leadership and support.

“Initially, organizing it seemed a bit overwhelming, but completely worth every bit of effort we’ve put in so far. I’m super proud of our staff, I feel they deserve this award. We’re grateful to the NIHB for recognizing our work,” Clinic Nurse Manager Sara Augspurger said.

Papakee concluded, “I’d like to thank all our health staff, Meskwaki leadership, and the entire community for their support and assistance as we continue to navigate the pandemic together. While we continue to meet the health care needs of the Tribe, we will begin offering vaccination boosters per CDC recommendations soon.”

Papakee said that while COVID-19 has been an ongoing concern, he continues to worry about staff burnout and impacts to staff with the ongoing pandemic.

“Staff have shown significant resilience and have continued to rise to the challenges presented in the fight against COVID-19. Receiving such an award affirms their efforts are recognized and appreciated not just locally but on a national level.”

Meskwaki Health Clinic Nurse Manager Sara Augspurger unpacks one of the first shipments of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in late December 2020, not long after the first vaccines were given emergency approval in the U.S. -- Photo courtesy of Meskwaki Media

A Meskwaki Health Clinic bus sits outside the Des Moines North High School earlier this year as the Meskwaki Clinic was assisting the school district with a COVID-19 vaccine clinic -- Photo by Phil Roeder/Des Moines Public Schools