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Joseph Martin

Special to Indian Country Today

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has experienced a spike in confirmed coronavirus cases since it began its phased reopening May 8. 

At that time, the tribe had nine confirmed cases of COVID-19. As of Monday morning, it had 43.

The tribe was previously slated to open Monday but was notified that three employees at Qualla Boundary Head Start and Early Head Start tested positive for the virus, Principal Chief Richard Sneed said in a statement. The Head Start programs are considered nonessential and have been closed, along with tribal programs, due to the pandemic.

“Many of our employees rely on (the two Head Start programs), the Cherokee Youth Center and the recreation department day camps for childcare, and the continued closure of these programs and offices creates a hardship for our employees,” he said. 

Sneed said because of that hardship, the tribe would reopen June 22. The date change also applies to the tribal newspaper, the Qualla Boundary Public Library, the youth center and other tribal programs. The tribe's two casinos in North Carolina reopened in a limited capacity May 28.

"Once people start testing more, cases are identified,” said Vickie Bradley, secretary of the tribal Public Health and Human Services division, who cited "community transmission." 

The division reported May 28 that two who tested positive at the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority’s testing site had attended gatherings at the Cherokee Fair Grounds and at a church. 

The division began contact tracings and notifying anyone who may have come in contact with the individuals. One of those who tested positive had been hospitalized. Bradley didn’t have information on the person’s identity or status.

The tribe sent out messages and texts through its 911 public safety answering point advising anyone who had been to gatherings in the past few weeks to call the tribe’s COVID-19 hotline if they’d like to get tested.

Dr. Richard Bunio, executive medical director for Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority, said: “There is not a singular source for these infections. We are experiencing community spread, which means that several cases have no known source.”

While children have mostly shown to recover from COVID-19 with few complications, Multisystem Inflammatory Sydrome in Children has been associated with the virus. 

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it's a condition where different body parts, such as lungs, heart, brain or kidneys can become inflamed and can be fatal.

“Parents should be concerned,” Bunio said. “However, I would like to point out that those childcare workers that have tested positive were identified before the childcare facility opened. The (syndrome) is still a very rare complication of the coronavirus, and parents should consult with their pediatrician if they have concerns.”

The tribe is continuing to test community members, including those who’ve previously been tested, in Cherokee, North Carolina, and its communities in Snowbird, near Robbinsville, North Carolina and in Cherokee County, North Carolina.

Sneed called for vigilance among tribal employees to prevent the spread. 

“Follow the CDC’s recommendations regarding the three W's: Wait 6 feet apart. Wear a cloth face covering. Wash your hands for 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer often," he said.

"These actions can protect our families, neighbors, and our visitors as we take cautious steps forward to ease restrictions in our community while the virus is still circulating.”

Bunio said the hospital authority has increased its surveillance and containment efforts in response to the rising cases.

"We will continue to message the proven containment methods, which is wear your masks, practice social distancing and washing hands, using hand sanitizer frequently, also reminding people that they can feel perfectly well and still be spreading the virus.”

Sneed said that during the closure extension, the division secretaries and tribal leadership would develop plans to address future childcare issues, and those plans would be communicated as soon as possible. 

“As with all situations dealing with COVID-19, we must remain flexible and ready for change,” he said. “I sincerely appreciate everyone's understanding and patience as we work through issues pertaining to COVID-19 and its impact on our community.”

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Joseph Martin is a former editor of the Cherokee One Feather in Cherokee, North Carolina and a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.