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Minnesota Native News

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Minnesota Native News is a weekly radio segment covering ideas and events relevant to Minnesota’s Native American communities. Made possible by the Minnesota Art's and Cultural Heritage fund


Dr. Mary Owen On Importance Of Native Community Accepting COVID Vaccine

This is Minnesota Native News, I’m Marie Rock. This week on Minnesota Native News, we hear from a native medical expert and leader, Dr. Mary Owen, who discusses the importance of the COVID-19 vaccination for the native community. 

Here’s reporter Cole Premo with more. 


When I first scheduled a video interview with Dr. Mary Owen, little did I know I’d be interviewing her right after she got the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

OWEN: “Hello, sorry. I'm late. I just got, I had to zoom out to the clinic to get my vaccine. No, that's, that's totally fine. That's totally fine. That's a great.”

First, a quick introduction. 

OWEN: My name is Dr. Mary Owen and I am from the sharp clan of the Lincoln nation. And I'm an assistant professor at the university of Minnesota medical school and the current president of the association, American Indian physicians. 

Then, I, of course, first wanted to know how the vaccination went. 

OWEN: You know, it was really surprising. It, I felt it less than I do the flu shot hardly noticed it actually. And I'm not just saying that I don't need to say that part, you know, it was really painless.

Dr. Owen is working on getting the message out to the native community on why taking the vaccine is so important. 

OWEN: I recognized that there is going to be huge need in our communities because of the potential for vaccine hesitancy, you know, um, just like in African-American communities, our communities have had, um, have naturally so much distrust of government and health institutions.

So, Dr. Owen and the Association of American Indian Physicians put together a task force with the purpose of getting the message out, whether it be through the airwaves or through social media. She says native medical students have also been asked to spread the message. 

Part of the task force’s job has been producing a series of videos explaining the importance of the vaccine. 

OWEN: The videos themselves are really short. Mine was a little bit longer, a minute and 30 seconds to kick it off with just why we're doing them. And the why is that we are dying far higher rates than any other population age. When you look at the age adjustments, including African-Americans either, and it's not a competition at all, just to emphasis on why we need this. And it's not the first time it's happened. We had the same thing happen with H one N one when we died at four times the rate of, um, non-natives. So, um, but COVID is different. It's killing even more of us and therefore we need a drastic response to it and we need people to buy into these vaccines.”

She says that, while the data is still coming in, it appears that the federal government has indeed recognized the impact the virus has had on the native population, and vaccines are getting to elders and health care workers in those communities. 

However, she says there’s still a lot of work to do to get the overall native population to buy-in to the vaccine, especially those on the younger side.
OWEN: What I worry about is the next wave… you know, young people who tend to feel, I remember myself feeling invincible, like this doesn’t really affect me. and it's a two-step vaccine. That's the other piece. You don't get the, um, the heavier coverage until you get that second shot. So that also gets in the way of the protections. You know, when we have, we have already have people who struggle sometimes to get into clinic, to get the first shot, but then to have to get that second one.

So, the work goes on. 

OWEN: We can't afford to lose people, particularly at this time when we're finally, we really seem to be gaining in strength. More people want to know about us and are, are willing to listen to the history that they haven't been willing to listen to before, or if they haven't been willing to that they haven't heard in they're actually going out and seeking it on their own horn information about us. So it's a good time for us to push forward, not to, not to move backwards by getting by dying off from a disease.”

After getting the vaccine, Dr. Mary Owen says wearing a mask is still important. While the vaccines have been proven to be about 95% effective in preventing serious illness from COVID-19, it's unclear how well they curb the spread of COVID-19. So, for now, health experts are still recommending wearing a mask after vaccination until more is known and more people are vaccinated.

As a note, Owen had A LOT more to say. She talked more on addressing medical distrust within the native community, her personal experiences as a physician and what inspired her to help her community. You can hear more from her on the latest episode of Native Lights: Where Indigenous Voices Shine. 

I’m Cole Premo. 

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