By ERIN SCHUMAKER, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Vaccinations in Oklahoma are now open to everyone in the state thanks to a surprising source: Oklahoma’s Native tribes.

The Chickasaw, Osage, Choctaw and Citizen Potawatomi Nations have expanded their vaccination eligibility to the general public, including Native and non-Native Oklahomans.

Cherokee Nation appointments are open to anyone who lives within the tribe’s 14-county area, regardless of whether they’re a tribal member.

“The goal is to vaccinate as many people as possible, to begin to reach the herd immunity that is needed to protect the general public against the COVID-19 virus,” Todd Hallmark, executive officer of health at Choctaw Nation, said in a statement.

American Indians have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, with higher rates of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths than any other racial or ethnic group. As of March, American Indians were 1.7 times more likely than white Americans to contract COVID-19 and 3.7 times more likely to be hospitalized with it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They also were 2.4 times more likely to die from the virus, the CDC found.

Tribal Nations receive vaccines through the Indian Health Service. As of March 15, the IHS had distributed more than 1.2 million doses of the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines and administered more than 760,000 of those doses.

Oklahoma is still in Phase 3 of vaccine distribution, which includes health care workers, first responders, people 65 years old and older, essential workers and people with underlying medical conditions. The general public will not be eligible for vaccination through the state until Phase 4.

Other states, including Alaska and Mississippi, have dropped eligibility criteria for vaccinations altogether, with other states announcing that the general public will qualify for vaccines in the coming weeks.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.