PEMBROKE, N.C. (WNCN) – Decimated. That is the word being used to describe the effect COVID-19 has had on the Lumbee Tribe.

Robeson County has the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate in the state. The latest numbers for the county show COVID-19 infected American Indians at four times the rate of Black people and twice the rate of whites.

The top reason why so few are getting vaccinated is trust.

“Having that snatched away has been really difficult,” said Cherry Maynor Beasley. She is the Associate Dean of the McKenzie-Elliott School of Nursing and Chief Nursing Officer at UNC-Pembroke.

“A group that has had smallpox used against them as warfare. Why would you say, ‘just trust us?’ So, when a lot of people go into Native communities to work, they say trust us, but yet they haven’t built the trust,” Beasley said. “One of the things we need to realize about indigenous people is we truly are a tribal people. We don’t necessarily focus on individuals and making decisions based on the individual, but for the community and family unit as a whole.

“So, when you say to us, for instance, ‘wear your mask when you’re around family.’ For us, that may be 100 people we’re around weekly to actually interact with. We interact as one economic social unit.”

The low vaccination rate is taking its toll. UNC Southeastern Hospital in Lumberton said it’s at capacity and patients in the emergency department are waiting on inpatient beds.

As of Thursday, all current ICU patients and those on a ventilator are unvaccinated.

UNC-Pembroke is trying to change the trend. It is holding vaccination clinics for both students and the public. But the biggest impact may be community outreach. That includes building that trust and having conversations with Lumbee not just in Robeson County, but also in neighboring counties like Cumberland.

“We’ve been actually able to go into the community multiple times — sometimes in conjunction with the health department, sometimes the week following the health department so we can actually build on what each other is doing,” Beasley said.

That work will hopefully turn an unfortunate trend in the other direction.