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Joseph Martin
Special to Indian Country Today

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, based in Cherokee, North Carolina, has had some successes in curtailing infections from the coronavirus pandemic on its lands. 

Those successes were highlighted in a July article posted by The Atlantic

However, over a two-week period ending Friday, reported cases spiked from 185 to 279 for the tribe’s lands, where about 8,200 out of nearly 16,000 enrolled members reside. 

Since Sept. 25, reports released every two days have shown at least seven new cases each, with 27 new cases reported Friday. Also Friday, tribal health officials identified a COVID-19 cluster associated with services at a church between Sept. 17 and Oct. 7.

The rise is happening at the same time as an expansion in reopening on the tribe’s land, issued by an Oct. 1 executive order from Principal Chief Richard Sneed. 

The order allows for movie theaters to open at 30 percent capacity with encouraged staggered show times to reduce lobby congestion. Retail, private and government businesses are allowed to open event and meeting spaces to no more than 30 percent with encouraged social distancing. 

The tribe will be updating protection measures "in such a way that helps small-business owners and community members without compromising the health of tribal citizens and residents,” the order stated.

Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (file photo)

The chief didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. But in a video released on his Facebook page, Sneed said the tribe's public health officials, particularly the contact tracing team, "have worked hard to investigate the modes of transmission in our community and have determined that we are seeing significant community spread caused by family gatherings.”

Vickie Bradley, the tribe’s secretary of public health and human services, said it's hard to tell what has led to the sudden rise in cases, and that in some family situations, it’s hard to isolate.

“We have multi generations living in households," she said. "It’s really hard to prevent transmission when people are living in close quarters like that.”

Bradley said they’re doing what’s being done across the country to try to get the numbers down, which includes contact tracing, case investigations, encouraging social distancing and taking personal responsibility, along with ensuring quarantines.

“We don't want people out at all if they’re in quarantine,” she said.

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Bradley also encouraged testing. 

With the amount of time the tribe’s current testing method takes to get results, some may ask about rapid tests, and Bradley said officials may consider using them as they evolve. However, she said, for now, “to get a really accurate result, we would encourage nasal swabs."

"I think we can get our numbers down if people will wear face coverings,” she said.

Dr. Richard Bunio, executive medical director for the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority, said the hospital has partnerships with regional hospitals to handle most of the COVID-19 patients. 

Should it become overwhelmed, the authority has a contingency plan "where we would admit lower acuity patients to our inpatient unit," he said.

"In the event Cherokee experiences a huge increase in COVID cases, the health system would prioritize these and postpone wellness visits to protect the community. This will help community members maintain social distancing until the crisis has passed.”

Bunio said all front-line care givers are provided with protective gear. “All patients and visitors entering the facility are being screened for signs of illness. All patients, visitors and staff are required to wear a mask in the hospital.”

Sneed said it’s been reported how serious COVID-19 is, and there are also reports of people recovering with mild symptoms.

“I remind you it is our elderly that are most susceptible to experiencing severe symptoms, especially if they have other health issues," he said. "Now is not the time to be lackadaisical, or to let our guard down. This pandemic is not over, and it poses a serious threat to our elders that hold the most cultural knowledge and the majority of our Cherokee speaking population.”

Sneed noted the Cherokee people are social and are "driven by our love of family and community."

"I understand the desire to come together in fellowship to celebrate life’s milestones and accomplishments,” he said. “However, the Cherokee people are also a people that pride ourselves on our love and respect for elderly.”

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

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