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Lumbee Tribe Turns To 'Trusted Messengers' As COVID Surge Sweeps Community

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Madeline Gray
Dr. Shelly Lowery, right, talks with front desk clerk Tara Locklear, left, at Pembroke Family Practice in Pembroke, N.C. on September 13, 2021. Locklear received her first COVID shot the week before. Robeson County has the lowest vaccination rate in the state and with the delta variant, the rates of COVID cases and deaths have risen rapidly. Members of the Lumbee Tribe have an even lower reported vaccination rate as local medical professionals and community leaders work to build trust and raise awareness about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines.

Updated Sept. 20 at 3:30 p.m.

Lumbee Tribal Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr., the political head of the largest American Indian Tribe east of the Mississippi River, expects that the final few months of his tenure may be the hardest yet.

“This is what I feel like I've been called to do,” said Godwin in a recent phone interview from his home in Pembroke, N.C. “To keep these vigils up: testing, vaccination, education, videos — whatever it takes.”

As Godwin wraps his second and final elected term, his tribe faces a surge of illness and death caused by COVID-19. The community of 55,000 members is headquartered in Robeson County, N.C., along the border with South Carolina.

As of Sept. 20, the county had the lowest vaccination rate in North Carolina with one-third of the population fully vaccinated. Forty percent of residents have received a single dose.

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Madeline Gray
Lumbee Tribal Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr. stands on the porch of the home of Henry Berry Lowrie, a hero of the Lumbee people for his fight to evade forced labor in the 1860s, on the grounds of the Lumbee Tribe Cultural Center in Pembroke, N.C. on September 13, 2021.
"We can't afford to keep going to funerals like we're going."
Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr.

For Lumbees in the region, that vaccination rate is even lower. As of Aug. 31, 26% of Lumbee received their first dose of the vaccine, based on the most recent estimated zip code data assembled by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Along with the low vaccination rate in the community, Godwin has a close eye on the COVID-19 case counts released each week by the county health department. In the most recent report, more than 400 American Indians in the rural community tested positive — more than all other identified racial or ethnic groups combined.

According to Robeson County Health Director Bill Smith, the death toll for the most recently available two week-period has been "fueled by American Indian deaths." The latest reporting from the county health department shows that over that period, 37 people died from the disease, representing more than 10% of those who have died from COVID-19 in the county since March of 2020.

"We can't afford to keep going to funerals like we're going. We can't afford for our people to get sick. And we don't know what their lifelong side effects are going to be from having COVID,” said Godwin.

The Pandemic’s Toll Hits Closer To Home

As the highly-transmissible delta variant moves through the community, many are now feeling the impact of the pandemic at a personal level.

"I don't think there's a better way to put it, except that I really feel like it's tearing through the Lumbee community," said Dr. Shelly Lowery, a Lumbee family physician and chief medical officer for nearby Scotland Physicians Network, who sees patients out of her office in Pembroke, N.C.

“Many people are experiencing loss of loved ones in immediate family or friends this go-around even more so than [the] last go-around, with the surge,” she said. “And so that has moved the needle in some cases, but we still know of patients that have lost a loved one, an immediate family member, and who still hold fast to the fact that they are not getting the vaccine.”

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Madeline Gray
Dr. Shelly Lowery stands outside the Pembroke Family Practice under a tent setup for COVID testing in Pembroke, N.C. on September 13, 2021.

Wyvis Oxendine Jr., a teacher at Purnell Swett High School in Pembroke and an associate pastor at Mount Olive Pentecostal Holiness Church, is one of the members of the Lumbee Tribe who has experienced that personal loss. Over the winter, the virus swept through the Oxendine family. His father Wyvis Oxendine Sr., a longtime Robeson County educator and community organizer, died of COVID-19 in January at age 74. Now, Wyvis Jr. works to protect his family while also navigating life in an under-vaccinated community.

"You're afraid, especially with a young child in my situation, you're afraid to take him out different places because you're afraid of the unknown. You don't know who's vaccinated,” said Oxendine. "It's traumatic when you lose somebody, it causes you to want to take extra caution, because you don't want to lose somebody again, you don't want to be a carrier of the virus."

Roots Of Vaccine Hesitancy

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Madeline Gray
The Lumber River winds through Pembroke, N.C. on September 13, 2021.

Healthcare professionals, government officials, and community leaders are working to understand the reasons behind the continued low vaccination rate among Lumbee Tribe members. Lowery hears some of those reasons directly from her Lumbee patients, and from those in the general community.

“It boils down to one large category of misinformation,” she said. “I don't think there is one common thread. I think, number one, I hear some religious hesitancies. [You know], ‘I'm hesitant, and I'm not sure that the vaccine is safe, I believe God will protect me. In addition to religion and spiritual, I hear just mistrust. They don't trust that it's safe, that enough time was put into it, a lot of government conspiracy.”

Lowery said earlier in the vaccine rollout, many of her patients came into her office with questions related to the vaccine’s safety. She answered with patience, empathy and localized data.

"But now, it's just harder," she said. "Because I think what we're left with are the ones who are standing on some principle of conviction that they don't believe it's safe or warranted for one of those two [reasons], either political freedom of choice or really a religious rationale."

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Madeline Gray
Lumbee Tribal Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr., center, talks with Public Relations Director Tasha Oxendine, left, and Communications Information Support Specialist Taylor Davis, right, about a poster for an upcoming fish fry while at the Lumbee Tribe Cultural Center in Pembroke, North Carolina on September 13, 2021.

Linda Maynor Oxendine (no known relation to Wyvis Oxendine Jr.), an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe and the North Carolina regional director for CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort) a crisis response organization, sees similar themes across the Robeson County community. The group is helping support testing and vaccination efforts in the area, and they recently ran a survey asking residents what’s behind their position on the vaccine.

Among the standout themes were government mistrust, faith-based reasons, exposure to misinformation, and a lack of understanding behind the science. For the Lumbee, the element of government mistrust has deep roots.

“Trying to take away rights, take away identities, remove people from their land, and suppress them, and move them to parts of the world that governments wanted them to be located to whether it was on a reservation or wherever they felt that's where they needed to be. And just what we read in the history books, basically, has been the biggest part,” said Oxendine about the many sources of government mistrust for Lumbee.

'Trusted Messengers Giving Them Trusted Messages'

With anti-vaccine and vaccine-hesitant sentiment potentially rooted in this history, Oxendine and Godwin understand the value of having trusted local Lumbee voices delivering COVID information.

“By us having people on the streets, in their neighborhoods, in their communities, and not just ‘people’ but their neighbors, familiar faces, faces of people that they know that they trust, it makes it a lot easier for them to accept the information. What we call trusted messengers giving them trusted messages,” said Oxendine.

Godwin and his staff have launched a video campaign to deliver information from those “trusted messengers” throughout the community.

In a video released at the end of August, a group of Native American ministers stand in front of the weathered planks of the historic Burnt Swamp Baptist Association church to encourage tribe members to get vaccinated. One week later, the tribe released a video featuring 17 Lumbee doctors, including Dr. Lowery, who spoke to their personal experience serving the community during this outbreak.

As she holds back tears, Dr. Ginger Locklear, a pediatrician at Children's Health Pembroke, tells viewers to “please, if you have questions, come ask about COVID vaccinations. If you're on the fence, and you have questions, I believe it's safe.” In the week before filming, Locklear lost three people to COVID that she knew personally.

“We have seen some increases in that [vaccination] number since we first began here in the area, but not the numbers that we're looking for,” said Oxendine.

Beyond local messaging, the Lumbee Tribe, and partners like CORE, are implementing new local vaccination efforts. At Lumbee Homecoming this summer, CORE set up a vaccination clinic that saw 20 people get vaccinated.

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Madeline Gray
Dr. Shelly Lowery holds up her name tag which displays the fact that she has been vaccinated for COVID at Pembroke Family Practice in Pembroke, North Carolina on September 13, 2021.

The tribe — in partnership with the hospital, county health department, community groups, and the University of North Carolina Pembroke — has launched a new drive-thru vaccination clinic that will run every Tuesday afternoon at the Lumbee Tribal Housing Complex in Pembroke.

'What We Need To Do'

As vaccination drives yield a slow uptick, case counts and deaths in the area continue to rise. That leaves Dr. Shelly Lowery and other healthcare professionals with the responsibility of keeping the conversation around vaccines going with her patients.

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Madeline Gray
Flowers mark a grave at a small cemetery on the outskirts of Pembroke, N.C., on September 13, 2021.

“We need to ask ourselves, ‘How many more deaths that could have been preventable does there need to be?’” said Lowery. “At this point, the benefit of getting the vaccine far, far outweighs any risk.”

For his part, teacher and associate pastor Wyvis Oxendine Jr. maintains faith that his community will recognize those risks and move toward vaccinations.

“I know it's been very hard and it feels like our backs are getting ready to break,” he said. “I know without a shadow of a doubt that eventually, we're going to be able to find some light on the other end of this. And I believe people are just going to eventually wake up to it and see, ‘This is what we need to do.”

Laura Pellicer is a digital reporter with WUNC’s small but intrepid digital news team.
Charlie Shelton-Ormond is a podcast producer for WUNC.
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