Cherokee Nation Receives Two National Indian Health Service Awards

Cherokee IHS Service Awards
Cherokee Nation Health Services Executive Director Dr. R. Stephen Jones receiving an award from Indian Health Service Director Roselyn Tso.

TAHLEQUAH, OK – Cherokee Nation Health Services was recently honored as the recipient of two national Indian Health Service (IHS) awards, including the Pandemic Heroism Award for its COVID-19 Task Force and the Director’s Customer Service Award for the tribe’s efforts through the Pandemic Vaccine Task Force.

Cherokee Nation received the awards during a ceremony in Rockville, MD, at IHS headquarters last week.

The awards recognize individuals or groups of employees whose special efforts and contributions, beyond their regular duty requirements, have resulted in significant benefits to the IHS strategic objectives, customers, and fulfillment of the IHS mission. 

“Cherokee families have seen and felt the positive impact that our health system and our public health team have made on our communities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “Our Health Services and Public Health teams have put the lives of the Cherokee people first. They have served not only our own families, but our neighbors and friends across the reservation and in communities at large. Deputy Chief Bryan Warner and I are extremely proud of each of them and thankful to their teams for their tireless commitment to the health and safety of Cherokees. Their expertise during the pandemic saved countless lives and helped us to lessen the negative impacts of the virus on our most vulnerable populations, which in turn helped to protect our precious Cherokee language and culture.”

The Pandemic Heroism Award recognizes exceptional, dedicated work and selfless responses in the face of the COVID pandemic. This award for the COVID-19 Task Force recognizes service that advances the IHS mission and vision through work focused on the aims and objectives in the IHS COVID-19 Action Plan.

Cherokee IHS awards
L-R: Oklahoma City Area Indian Health Service Director Rear Adm. Travis Watts; Cherokee Nation Health Services Deputy Executive Director of Internal Operations Wayne Coldwell; Cherokee Nation Health Services Senior Director of Nursing Dr. Rebecca Shepherd; Cherokee Nation Health Services Executive Director Dr. R. Stephen Jones; and Cherokee Nation Health Services Deputy Executive Director of External Operations Brian Hail at the IHS awards ceremony.

“In early March of 2020, we convened an interdisciplinary COVID-19 Task Force and used a team approach to plan response efforts,” said Dr. R. Stephen Jones, Cherokee Nation Health Services Executive Director. “We identified and removed barriers to services for both patients and employees and all of our decisions made were weighed with the current infectious disease evidence and epidemiological trends for our area at the time. We took a strategic and measured approach to decrease in-person patient encounters, increase telehealth options, and increase in-service lines offered.”

Members of the task force included tribal, health services and public health leadership, physician specialists and leaders, nursing, pharmacy, laboratory, epidemiology, emergency management, finance, communications, the Cherokee Nation Attorney General’s Office and health information technology.

The Director’s Customer Service Award recognizes the innovation and exceptional performance of the Pandemic Vaccine Task Force that resulted in quality service to customers, stakeholders, and partners of the IHS.

“Vaccine acceptance was our initial focus,” said Cherokee Nation Health Services Deputy Executive Director Brian Hail. “Even before we had the COVID-19 vaccines in hand, we conducted focus groups with community members and outreach via public health, provided social media posts and mailers, and video messages from tribal leaders and physicians to educate our communities and address any concerns or questions. To ensure the story of the Cherokee Nation continues, we prioritized our Cherokee first-language speakers and Cherokee National Treasures after vaccinating frontline healthcare staff.”

Cherokee Nation Health Services has administrated nearly 119,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine since receiving its first shipment in December of 2020.

“We’ve gone to where the people are in an effort to reach everyone,” said Wayne Coldwell, Cherokee Nation Health Services Deputy Executive Director. “Besides offering the vaccine at every health center, we hosted drive-thru events across the reservation, with the help of our tribal administration provided incentives for staff vaccinations, and offered the vaccine to anyone in our community, regardless of citizenship in a tribe. We saw people come from all over the country early on in the vaccination effort.”

Throughout the pandemic, Cherokee Nation Health Services continued to serve patients and expand access to care.

“Some projects and service lines that we would normally devote months to planning were initiated within a span of days and it was the same with our vaccination efforts,” said Dr. Roger Montgomery, Cherokee Nation Health Services Executive Medical Director. “I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. We did not sit idly by and throw our hands up, we did what we do best – we were innovative and reached our citizens.”

COVID-19 vaccines including the COVID-19 bivalent booster are available to any member of the public at all Cherokee Nation health center locations Monday through Friday from 8:00am to 5:00pm.

“I cannot express enough how much our teams demonstrated the spirit of gadugi within the health system to serve our communities and those at large,” said Jones. “Our team approach made us more aware of the various roles within our organization and what we can accomplish together. It has been humbling to see everyone take on new and unfamiliar roles to deliver exceptional care to our patients and we attribute our success to our staff’s dedication to serving each other and our people.”