Taking Indian Country’s COVID testing into their own hands

Lab technicians at Tribal Diagnostics, the only Native-owned reference laboratory in the country, pose for a photo. The company began COVID-19 testing in May. (Photo courtesy of Tribal Diagnostics)

Aliyah Chavez

Native-owned reference lab has a ‘unique opportunity to help in a way that many labs cannot’

Aliyah Chavez
Indian Country Today

In its first three years, Tribal Diagnostics tested for everything from diabetes and heart disease to substance abuse.

Now, it’s working with tribal nations to test for COVID-19 at its Oklahoma lab.

The company appears to be the only Native-owned lab that collects test samples from health facilities across the country to run tests on its machines, in order to diagnose medical conditions.

It receives samples from Native and non-Native health facilities.

Tribal Diagnostics began coronavirus testing in May using a common nasal swab test that can tell if a person currently has a virus. It also has the capability to do antibody tests that determine whether a person was previously exposed to the virus.

Since then, it has conducted nearly 1,000 coronavirus tests for Indian Country specifically. The company is currently working with the Indian Health Service to process samples.

“The option for tribes to use a Native-owned lab is a great benefit,” says Tribal Diagnostics CEO Cory Littlepage of the Chickasaw Nation.

“Tribal Diagnostics is acutely aware of the health disparities and needs of American Indians and Alaska Natives, and we take that very seriously. We want tribes to know that they can trust us, and that their health and recovery is our top concern,” Littlepage said.

Other experts including National Indian Health Board CEO Stacy Bohlen, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, say having reliable and accessible coronavirus testing in Indian Country is important.

“If you can’t measure it [the coronavirus], you can’t manage it,” Bohlen said.

“If a Native-owned company is coming into this space and offering testing, I would have to be pretty convinced that they would have to be excellent because they would have to be held accountable by their own people,” Bohlen said. “There’s a real trust element there.”

The company has worked with over a dozen tribal nations in places like Seattle, Oklahoma and Michigan prior to COVID-19.

On May 13, the Cheyenne and Arapho Tribes hired the company to test hundreds of tribal members and employees for coronavirus in an effort to reopen their gaming facilities and government offices.

The Oklahoma City laboratory can process up to 1,000 samples a day using what’s called an “RT-PRC Test” to determine if someone is currently infected with COVID-19. To test whether they previously had the virus, they can test 100 samples an hour using an “IgG” antibody test.

The company says it began looking into COVID-19 testing at the beginning of March when fears of testing availability were heightened.

Currently there are various COVID-19 testing options in Indian Country. If a patient chooses to be seen at an Indian Health Service location, they have the option of being tested there. IHS utilizes public, commercial and private health laboratories to determine test results.

If a tribe owns and operates its own health facility, it has the option of contracting medical services to test for COVID-19, which can be done through public, private or commercial providers. Tribal citizens also have the options of private providers, veteran affairs hospitals and urban Indian health programs.

“We realized very quickly that there was going to be an unbelievable shortage of laboratory tests in general, but especially in Indian Country,” Littlepage said. “We immediately saw this as our opportunity to not only provide testing options but education about how the tests work.”

Littlepage noted accuracy and quality are key so his lab spent “ample time” researching which tests to use.

Tribal Diagnostics reports its antibody test has over 99.5 percent accuracy.

“The equipment Tribal Diagnostics uses has FDA Emergency Use Authorization, which is sort of the gold standard of accuracy,” Littlepage said.

About a third of the Tribal Diagnostics team is Native, from tribes that include Choctaw, Navajo, Ponca and Penobscot. It has 56 total employees.

In the future, Tribal Diagnostics hopes to expand its relationships working with Indian Country with an ultimate goal of helping to address health disparities.

“And finances shouldn’t have to be a burden for tribes or individuals,” Littlepage said.

The company charges Medicare rates for coronavirus testing. It also works with a number of major health insurance carriers including Cigna, Aetna and Blue Cross Blue Shield.

“We have a unique opportunity to help in a way that many labs cannot, and I am really proud of the dedication of the Tribal Diagnostics team to rise up to the challenge,” Littlepage said. “Providing and caring for one’s community is ingrained in American Indian culture and therefore ingrained in the fiber of our company.”

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Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix Bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @aliyahjchavez or email her at achavez@indiancountrytoday.com

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Comments (1)
No. 1-1
Tandy299
Tandy299

CEO Bolen: You BELIEVE the lab is excellent? Well as a health executive, you should know that the only way to excellence is through certifications which prove that they are accurate in their results. So, would you care to modify that statement?


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