Oregon tribal casino employee 'presumptive' positive for COVID-19

Two women wearing masks walk away from the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., near Seattle, Monday, March 2, 2020. Health officials in Washington state said Sunday night that a second person had died from the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Joaqlin Estus

‘Gentleman became ill while attending a local basketball event’

In Pendleton, Oregon, the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla has gone into emergency mode after being notified a casino employee, who is not a tribal citizen, was presumed positive for coronavirus.

“The gentleman became ill while attending a local basketball event off reservation, at Weston middle school (which has been closed for deep cleaning) in the town of Weston,” said Chuck Sams, communications director for the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla. “He became ill on Saturday and was transported to a hospital in Walla Walla, Washington,” Sams said. “The Confederated tribes investigated and discovered the patient worked in a confined area at its [Wildhorse] resort and casino.” The basketball game took place on Feb. 29.

Sams said, “It has been determined that the casino operations will shut down for a thorough cleaning of the entire resort and casino facilities, which we expect to be open again in 24 to 48 hours.”

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A "presumptive" case means a local public health laboratory tested the case and is waiting for confirmation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

(Related story: The virus empties public spaces as it spreads across the globe)

Sams said out of an abundance of caution, the tribe is also closing its education center, community school, head start and daycare facility, and senior center.

In addition, Sams said, “The board of trustees, the governing body for the tribes, has stood up an emergency command center being headed by Lisa Guzman, CEO of our tribal health health center, with support by members of the tribal government staff.”

Sams said the tribe was able to move into action quickly because of extensive planning.

“We knew Oregon is part of the Pacific Rim and does a lot of trade with Korea, China, Japan, and we have an international port and an international airport. So we knew this could be a possibility.

(Related: Scientists have long warned about link between pandemics and climate change)

“As a matter of fact, the tribal health facility has been working in cooperation with the CDC, Oregon health authority, the state government and the counties. They were all on joint calls that took place on Friday and Saturday,” Sams said. “And then we had an internal meeting just last night at 5:00 p.m. between Indian health clinic staff and our tribal government in preparation to get word out on how to combat this virus.”

Chuck Sams said the employees who were sent home were placed on administrative leave, another cost in addition to the loss of casino revenue.

"We're possibly going to see economic impact, particularly with employees who either think that they have symptoms or are diagnosed with coronavirus and will not be able to come in and work. We need anybody who has symptoms to stay home," said Chief Research Officer for the Seattle Indian Health Board Abigail Echo-Hawk, Pawnee. “That's one of the things that's the public health concern too is making sure that people who do have symptoms, they do need to stay home. So we need to ensure that they have the ability to do that."

The Oregon Health Authority said state and local health officials are working to contact people who may have been in close contact with the man who tested as a presumptive positive. The man had not traveled or been in close contact with any travelers. So this is considered a case of community transmission.

Oregon and Washington health officials are also working to determine if there are other locations where the individual may have interacted with other people.

An increase in testing for the coronavirus began shedding light Monday on how the illness has spread in the United States, including among nursing home residents in one Washington state facility.

New diagnoses in several states pushed the tally of COVID-19 cases past 100, and New Hampshire reported its first case, raising the total of affected states to 11. Seattle officials announced four more deaths, bringing the total in the U.S. to six.

Coronavirus disease, which epidemiologists are now calling COVID-19, has spread from Wuhan, China to 69 locations in Asia, Europe, Africa, Oceana, and the Americas. As of March 2, the World Health Organization said there are more than 89,948 cases worldwide, and at least 2,915 people have died.

(Previous story: A lethal epidemic that 'decimated' and 'annihilated' Indigenous people)

As in other parts of the country, Alaskans are worried that COVID-19 may come here. Dr. Joe McLaughlin is state epidemiologist and chief of the Alaska section of epidemiology, “There is no treatment for this disease.There are some antiviral meds that are being studied currently to see if they’re effective against COVID-19.”

The recommendations for avoiding COVID-19 are the same as those for avoiding a cold or the flu. Wash your hands several times a day with soap and warm water. Stay six feet away from people who are coughing or sneezing and cover your own sneezes. Wipe “high-touch” surfaces. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

Fears about the potential threat of ID-19 are valid and people need to be cautious, McLaughlin said. But the much more common influenza is also serious.

“Every year the United States gets a seasonal epidemic,” McLaughlin said. “It happens in winter months. Case counts are about 8 percent of the US population. That’s 26 million people. The case fatality rate is less than .1 percent. But because the number of cases is so high, the US mortality rate due to influenza is in the tens of thousands, while influenza related hospitalizations number in the hundreds of thousands,” McLaughlin said.

In December and January influenza B made its way across the country and is on the wane. Epidemiologists are now seeing a wave of Influenza A starting to grow. McLaughlin said,” My number one recommendation is to strongly encourage everyone to get their flu shot.”

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

Indian Country Today, LLC., is a non-profit, public media enterprise. Reader support is critical. We do not charge for subscriptions and tribal media (or any media, for that matter) can use our content for free. Our goal is public service. Please join our cause and support independent journalism today. We have an audacious plan for 2020 and your donation will help us make it so. #MyICT

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