Dave Kolpack
Associated Press

FARGO, N.D. — Tribal leaders on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in northeastern North Dakota are requiring residents to wear masks to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, a rare move in a state where face coverings have not been mandated despite a sharp increase in overall cases.

The reservation is located primarily in Benson County, which according to The COVID Tracking Project has seen the state's most new cases per capita in the last two weeks. Area public health workers are worried about the trend after seeing the number of positive tests jump from 16 to 70 since the middle of July.

Allen McKay, administrator for the Lake Region District Health Unit, which covers Benson, Eddy, Pierce and Ramsey counties, said the increases in Benson are "basically coming from Spirit Lake," although he doesn't yet know the reason for the spike. He hopes that a mass testing event scheduled Friday in Fort Totten will provide more clues.

"Believe me, we've noticed that," McKay said of the reservation cases. "Did something big take place, like a big wedding, or a big get-together, or is it finally just hitting Spirit Lake now? We're just not sure."

In the meantime, the tribal council is requiring that masks be worn in public. Spirit Lake chairman Roger Yankton Sr. said in a memo posted Monday on the tribe's website that every resident "needs to take this seriously!!!" More than 4,000 people live on the reservation.

Many of Spirit Lake residents shop in nearby Devils Lake, where McKay lives, and from his observation he said they are following the mask order.

"I think they realize it's getting worse," McKay said. "It's easy to not worry about taking precautions when you don't have any cases. But the last two weeks it has really taken off."

Native Americans can be more vulnerable to the coronavirus because many of them live in crowded conditions with extended families. They have higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease than the general U.S. population and usually have poorer access to health care. 

Nicole Peske, spokeswoman for Gov. Doug Burgum's COVID-19 information center, said "we don't talk about clusters or outbreaks" and referred the case to Spirit Lake health officials. Tribal health director Tracy Charboneau did not respond to phone and email messages left by The Associated Press. Calls to the tribal office went unanswered.

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