Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

Rising infection rates are being linked to the delta variant, particularly from the unvaccinated. Tribes are following the trend.

The current data of hospitalizations, positive cases, and 50 percent of the U.S. population still being unvaccinated (some including children who are going to school) is extremely concerning, said Dean Seneca, a citizen of the Seneca Nation.

“This is a cocktail for disaster coming up this month. We cannot let our guard down,” he said. “People need to really continue to practice hand washing, safe social distancing and wearing a mask. And that includes both the vaccinated and unvaccinated.

He said he fears that there will be a mutation that is deadlier than current variants out. It’s important to be diligent now.

“When you stop the spread, you stop the mutations of the virus,” he said. Seneca, currently the executive director for Seneca Scientific Solutions, used to work for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention as a senior health scientist for nearly 20 years where he worked on the frontlines of epidemics and infectious disease outbreaks.

(Related: What makes the COVID-19 variant different, and dangerous)

Dr. Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said to "This Week" co-anchor Jonathan Karl, that he thinks there will be no lockdowns because “we have enough of the percentage of people in the country — not enough to crush the outbreak — but I believe enough to not allow us to get into the situation we were in last winter. But things are going to get worse.”

Approximately 165 million people, or 49.8 percent of the total U.S. population, are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.

FILE - In this May 11, 2021, file photo, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. The United States is devoting more than $3 billion to advance development of antiviral pills for COVID-19, according to an official briefed on the matter. The pills, which would be used to minimize symptoms after infection, are in development and could begin arriving by year's end, pending the completion of clinical trials. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool Photo via AP, File)

ALASKA

In Alaska, the delta variant accounts for most of the new COVID-19 cases.

The Juneau Empire reported that Dr. Bob Onders, administrator of the Alaska Native Medical Center, said hospitals in Anchorage are seeing an increase in hospitalizations from COVID-19 in addition to regular emergency room services.

Approximately 67,900 of American Indians and Alaska Natives older than 12 years old have received at least one vaccine dose in the state, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, which serves 58 federally-recognized tribes and operates 41 village clinics, reported nine new cases. There are a total of 71 active cases as of Aug. 4.

NAVAJO NATION

The Navajo Nation on Saturday reported 25 additional COVID-19 cases as officials said some tribal members are foregoing needed precautions to ward off spread of the coronavirus.

“A lot of the new cases we are seeing on the Navajo Nation are due to family and social gatherings where people let their guard down and don’t wear masks,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement.

Nez noted that the virus’ highly contagious delta variant is spreading quickly in many states and said people visiting other households should wear masks and encourage others to do so.

The three additional deaths reported Saturday increased the pandemic’s toll to 1,377.

The Navajo Nation’s sprawling reservation includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

OKLAHOMA

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Oklahoma have topped 700 for the first time since mid-February, according to reports from the Oklahoma State Department of Health. The state also has the 11th lowest vaccination rate in the U.S. at 40.2 percent fully vaccinated as of July 30.

The Oklahoma and Kansas Indian Health Services region — which is recognized as one region under the Indian Health Services — leads with about 65,700 positive cases and about 377,000 doses administered, according to IHS data.

Dr. Ashley B. Cole, an enrolled tribal citizen of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma, said she was vaccinated through her employer instead of her tribe. Cole is also a psychology professor for a college in Oklahoma. She said the majority of her family and friends from other tribes have been vaccinated as well.

Cole said that some of her family members who haven’t been vaccinated are partly because of the distrust of scientific medicine, due to historical reasons, misinformation on social media, and challenges with health conditions in which they haven’t talked with a physician about their options.

She conducts her own lab research that “examines health disparities and health behaviors among American Indian/Alaska Native (Indigenous) populations, ​​including alcohol and substance use; exercise and eating patterns; and mental health.”

Her lab is conducting two ongoing research projects related to COVID-19 and the pandemic: looking at the mental health impact of COVID-19 for people of color and college students’ substance use among people of color.

She said they are asking participants if they’ve been vaccinated and if they or those in their households have previously been diagnosed positive for COVID-19. The data hasn’t been analyzed yet.

A Department of Energy researcher at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory studies the coronavirus in this photo from June 2020. Since then, the COVID-19 virus has mutated into several variants and the latest, the delta variant, has been called the “fastest and fittest” for its high transmissibility rate. (Photo by Genevieve Martin/U.S. Department of Energy)

The Oklahoman reported that the positive case rate increased 11.1 percent and nearly 80 were from unvaccinated patients from early June to mid-July.

Cole said she thinks the tribes in Oklahoma “have really done an excellent job” in vaccinating their citizens.

She mentioned some have done drive-through clinics, utilizing arenas and offering multiple dates for vaccination appointments. One recommendation Cole would give to tribes is to spread the message a bit more through media or social media.

“So that people can see ‘hey people, who look like me’ or ‘even members of my own tribe or members of my family are getting vaccinated, maybe I should too,’” Cole said.

Seneca added tribes should mobilize in their communities by possibly using vans and mobile health care units. Additionally, social systems in tribal communities, like elder and women groups, should be targeted and have them advocate for vaccinations.

INDIGENOUS EVENTS GO ON

While the delta variant was spreading, some Native events like the Reservation Economic Summit and the National Indian Gaming Association continued their conferences in Las Vegas in mid-July. It’s unclear if any of these events have been linked to any new cases in the state or surrounding areas where attendees traveled from.

On Monday, Nevada reported 1,130 people were hospitalized and confirmed to have COVID-19 and 94 hospitalized people were suspected to have the illness. Last Friday, the state issued a mask mandate to counties with substantial or high transmission, including Clark County, which Las Vegas is in its jurisdiction.

Victor Rocha, conference chairman of National Indian Gaming Association, tested positive last year for COVID-19 and was vaccinated before he went to the NIGA conference.

Victor Rocha in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by ICT)

To be extra precautious Rocha decided to test for COVID-19 at the Indian Gaming Tradeshow and Convention for three reasons: one, there were booths around that offered instant testing; two, he knew he would be in Las Vegas for at least a week, and three, he considered the breakthrough cases of vaccinated people testing positive.

“You just want to be safe and be cautious and want to make sure that you don’t have it,” he said.

Rocha said he’s attending the Oklahoma Indian Game Association conference and tradeshow from August 16-18. He said that if he could he would have made a mask mandate but hopes that there will be testing available at the event and believes the organization will practice health standards.

He also recently advised members of the National Indian Gaming Association to follow CDC guidelines and let them know if there are any cases linked to the conference.

“I think we have an obligation to ourselves, our family and our tribes to practice good and healthy safety standards. If that means wearing a mask then so be it,” he said.

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