Native Americans have lowest COVID vaccination rate in Robeson County, despite efforts

By Sarah Nagem

Taylor Locklear has a message for her fellow members of the Lumbee Native American tribe: Consider getting vaccinated against COVID-19. 

Locklear, the reigning Miss Lumbee and a paramedic for Robeson County EMS, made her plea as part of the tribe’s video campaign called “This Shot Is Your Shield.” 

“Our children are our future generation, and it’s important that we protect them,” she said in the video posted last week on YouTube and Facebook. 

The message comes as COVID cases are spiking and the vaccination rate among Native Americans continues to lag in Robeson County, home to the Lumbee tribe in southeastern North Carolina. 

Native Americans make up 43% of Robeson’s population but account for only 29% of the people in the county who have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services

Screenshot from N.C. Department of Health and Human Services

Twenty-three percent of Native Americans in Robeson have received at least one dose, lower than the rates for whites, Blacks, Asians and Hispanics, data shows. 

The figure is in line with the statewide figure showing 25% of Native Americans and Alaska natives have received at least one dose. 

But the numbers don’t reflect what’s happening nationally. Native Americans and Alaskan natives have the highest vaccination rate in the country at 43.6% with at least one dose, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Some experts say the disproportionate impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on Native American communities helps explain the high vaccination rates. Native Americans are 1.7 times more likely than white people to contract the virus and 2.4 times as likely to die from it, the CDC said in July. 

But in Robeson, home to about 117,000 people, some say misinformation and a lack of trust among the entire population is partly to blame for the county’s vaccination rate of 29%, which is among the lowest in North Carolina. 

Increase in deaths

The Lumbee tribe, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River with about 55,000 members, offers free COVID testing every weekday and provides help with scheduling vaccines. 

In a video message released Saturday, tribal Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr. said the community is “at a very critical juncture” and urged people who are unsure about the vaccine to talk to their doctor.

“We’ve lost more of our elders, and even more recently, our young adults,” he said, adding that he is vaccinated.

“I took my vaccine to protect my wife, my family – to protect you,” Godwin said. “My wife and sons are currently vaccinated as well.”

Ron Oxendine, 67, who lives in Maxton and is running for tribal chairman, said several factors help explain vaccine hesitancy among the Lumbees. 

“A lot of people are just not trustful of the government,” he said. “And we believe in a lot of homemade remedies.”

Oxendine said some people were concerned that the vaccines had not been granted full approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Now that the FDA approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine this week, he said, things might change.

“I’m hoping now that our Lumbee, or the folks here in Robeson County in general, will be smart enough now to see people are dying around us,” he said, adding that he got the vaccine as soon as it was available to him. 

Thirty-five Robeson County residents have died of COVID since Aug. 1, a dramatic spike from recent months, the local health department said Tuesday. Eleven were Native American. 

With 45 COVID patients in isolation as of Tuesday, UNC Health Southeastern in Lumberton asked people with minor health issues to go to their primary care doctor or an urgent care center instead of the emergency department where they “will likely face extensive delays.” 

Screenshot from N.C. Department of Health and Human Services

‘Sense of responsiblity’

The vaccination rates for every race and ethnicity in Robeson County falls below statewide figures. 

Forty-five percent of white people in North Carolina have received at least one dose of the vaccine, but only 35% in Robeson, DHHS data shows. 

Among Black people, 40% statewide have had at least one dose, compared to 36% in Robeson. 

Hispanics have a vaccination rate of 43% statewide for at least one dose and 26% in Robeson County. 

Asian people have the highest vaccination rate, with 61% statewide and 52% in Robeson. 

A poll released in January by the Urban Indian Health Institute showed 75% of Native American respondents said they were willing to get the COVID vaccine. 

“The primary motivation for participants who indicated willingness to get vaccinated was a strong sense of responsibility to protect the Native community and preserve cultural ways,” the institute said. 

Godwin said in his video message that “the Lumbee way of life exemplifies a sense of community.”

“My duty as the tribal chairman is to protect the well-being of the Lumbee people,” he said. “We have always looked out for each other, because we care for each other. The COVID vaccine allows us to protect our families, our friends, our Lumbee community.”

In her own video message, Teen Miss Lumbee Kyla Lee-Ann Jarrett said she and her family “got the vaccination to help protect our Lumbee community, and we hope that you will do the same.”  

Jarrett said she also got the vaccine for her grandmother, who she described as “a servant in her community.” 

Oxendine, who served as a Marine and now works as a military defense contractor, said it’s up to older people to encourage their families to get vaccinated. 

“They look to guidance from others,” he said of tribal members. “If our elders encourage their families to get the vaccination, they would.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Aug. 28, 2021, to include statements from Lumbee Tribal Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr.

Taylor Locklear, the reigning Miss Lumbee and a paramedic for Robeson County EMS, asked people to consider getting the COVID-19 vaccine in a video message.
Screenshot from YouTube