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Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed this week in its provisional death report that more than 10,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives and nearly 2,000 Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have died from COVID-19 complications.

Arizona, California, New Mexico and Oklahoma lead with the highest Native deaths from the virus.

Tribes continue to adjust to a pandemic that is stretching into its third year. The latest variant being omicron appears to have slowed since a jump during the holiday season. January began with a surge of a weekly moving average of more than 800,000 cases. On Feb. 14, it went down to 147,000 cases.

Dean Seneca, chief executive officer of Seneca Scientific Solutions Plus, predicts that the omicron variant will subside and another variant will take over. The question is if it’s going to be more contagious, severe or both.

“We’re never escaping this until the whole globe has really embraced vaccinations and prevention. So that’s going to be our biggest challenge,” he said.

As of Feb. 13, about 36 percent of the U.S. is not fully vaccinated, according to the Mayo Clinic. And data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the number of daily cases has increased approximately 71.6 percent compared to last year.

(PORTRAITS OF A PANDEMIC: Read about Indigenous relatives lost to COVID-19)

Seneca said these new mask lifting-mandates across states are “mimicking behavior” rather than changing public behavior. And the decreasing isolation days are concerning, from the previous 10 day isolation period to five days.

“Once you take off the mask, you will never get the mask back on,” he said.

He once served as the director of the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Epidemiology Center and said many tribal nations are at the whim of the Indian Health Service, or the 12 tribal epidemiology centers. He said there needs to be more Native people in leadership positions who know their communities best and for them to maintain restrictions.

He asks how non-Natives would know who to contact in a tribal community for prevention and contact tracing methods. The time and effort to establish that is too much of a wasted opportunity.

“That will have a huge impact in addressing pandemics in the future,” Seneca said. “We need our people in place to do this work. We need all of our epicenters run by Native people.”

He said what the late Cherokee leader Wilma Mankiller once said, at a speaking event at Emory University, especially resonates with him is that Indian people work best with Indian people.

“Because of COVID-19, because of these workforce issues, I fully understand and know what she’s talking about,” he said.

Volunteers prepare donations for delivery to those affected by COVID-19 on tribal lands Thursday, June 25, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz. The resource drive is for families isolated due to COVID-19 on Navajo, Hualapai, Havasupai and White Mountain Apache tribal lands. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Other tribes and schools navigating the pandemic

Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in the Phoenix valley has implemented phases into their government operations. They are currently in phase 2 which has some open facilities and continued virtual council meetings. The skate park and swimming pools still remain closed.

Next Tuesday, schools will again operate in person.

Janet Johnson, the tribe’s Community Relations office director, said they have three more phases with the last being phase 4 as the “new normal.” Part of the tribe’s campaign and promotion is a hotline number and weekly vaccination opportunities.

And their mask mandates have been and will remain in place. In contrast, the state of Arizona has no mask mandates.

In January, Osage Nation conducted a mass testing on administration and health care workers at the Wahzhazhe Health Center in Oklahoma. The effort came back with 57 positive cases out of 405 tested, according to Osage Nation.

“We must continue to provide vital tribal services and programs to Osage constituents while taking care of our workforce,” said Casey Johnson, Osage Nation director of operations, in a press release. “Testing plays a critical role in that effort and we are grateful to Dr. Bighorse and her team for going above and beyond, yet again, to help stop the spread.”

In response to the numbers, the tribe initiated a few closures and cancellations.Their mask mandate still remains in place and they are still advocating for vaccinations.

Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas initially planned to have in-person courses during the first week of February, but have committed to be entirely online due to their county guidelines.

The school will revisit the decision during the first week of March.

“It is our hope that Douglas County will move from Red to Orange status within the month as this will enable us to open up more of our campus,” read a statement.

Tribes in southwest Colorado have followed a similar suit with implementing stronger restrictions, reported by the Colorado Sun.

Tribal leaders from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe moved into “Code Red” and the Southern Ute Tribe moved into “Safer at Home” policies due to their rising COVID-19 cases. Vaccinations and masks are still encouraged.

"COVID-19 testing site" sign at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, Alaska (Photo by Joaqlin Estus)

Free COVID tests

In January, Americans could begin to order free four at-home tests online. The U.S. government plans to purchase a total of a billion tests and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said Medicare will cover up to eight free tests per month, starting in early spring.

The National Indian Health Board issued a news release that Elizabeth Fowler, Indian Health Service acting deputy director, has urged Indian Country to order their at-home COVID-19 testing kits.

Response from the US

In the United States there have been 1,045,000 excess deaths, which are deaths that are directly and indirectly attributed to COVID-19.

“Estimates of excess deaths can provide information about the burden of mortality potentially related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the CDC website said.

About 914,000 people have COVID-19 listed on death certificates with age groups 75 and over the most affected.

American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have experienced a disproportionately high number of COVID-19 deaths relative to their percent of the populations, with the 25 to 34 age group most affected.

A tribal health director commented how tribes with fewer than 2,000 residents and citizens have fared to their best ability over the course of the pandemic. The director said they utilized science and recognized the need to operate their government’s economy and health programs than states, counties or cities.

Like how the three tribes in Washington — Skokomish, Squaxin Island and Port Gamble S'Klallam — received bipartisan help for covid-response funding and the CDC and IHS helping the distribution of vaccines.

“I truly believe tribes showed that with adequate funding they can improve (the) health of American Indians and Alaska Natives, and in this case respond better to a public health crisis than if they depended on other governments for the 'retail' part of public health — where the rubber meets the road. If only the IHS were funded at the level of need as was the COVID-19 response,” the director said.

Seneca added how the number of deaths may be bigger due to severe undercounting and the history of high percent of racial misclassification. He said in the future there may be a more approximate number, but some state health departments don’t collect racial data or put Indigenous people in the ‘other group.’

JMIR Public Health and Surveillance conducted a study that analyzed state responses after the Equitable Data Collection and Disclosure on COVID-19 Act was introduced in April 2020. It proposed states to do more of a comprehensive review on demographic data related to COVID-19.

The study discovered health departments’ racial and ethnic data collection significantly increased, over the study’s six-month data collection period, from 10 percent to 53 percent.

And the reporting of race or ethnicity for confirmed cases and deaths also increased immediately after the bill’s introduction and six months later.

Registered nurse Elaine Crabb draws a dose of COVID-19 vaccine Monday, March 22, 2021 at a special vaccination site Bashas’ set up for its employees. It came as state officials announced that they will open registration for vaccine appointments to people as young as 16. (Photo by Travis Robertson, Cronkite News)

Actions and preventions continue 

Biden announced in late December that an additional 1,000 military doctors, nurses, paramedics, and other medical personnel will be deployed to hospitals during January and February to help mitigate staffing crunches at hospitals across the country.

Many facilities are struggling because their workers are in at-home quarantines due to the virus at the same time as a nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases.

Lt. Gen. John R. Evans Jr., U.S. Army north commander in San Antonio, Texas, said 220 military personnel will be available by the end of January. The 43 medical teams join 20 teams of about 400 military medical personnel who have been providing assistance to civilian hospitals since last August.

“We are committed to working alongside our civilian medical partners to assist hard-hit states and communities in need,” Evens said.

He added there will be deployments to New Mexico, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Michigan and Texas. And the Navajo Nation at Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock will receive a 20-person team to provide support.

A full report provided by the Navajo Department of Health and Navajo Epidemiology Center, last updated on Feb. 15, showed 29 new cases. A total of 487,800 tests have been done since the pandemic and the known death toll is at around 1,636.

Cases were in the hundreds in mid-January, around the same time as cases in 2020. The most cases in a single day since the pandemic began came on Jan. 18 with 540 cases. Since then cases have trended downward.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said health facilities at that time were working to give out more home testing kits while cases were surging. Starting Jan. 24, government workers on the Navajo Nation have to show proof of a COVID-19 booster shot.

“We are seeing a flattening of the curve in terms of new COVID-19 infections here on the Navajo Nation, but we have to keep our guard up and keep pushing back on the virus. Continue to wear masks in public, practice social distancing, get fully vaccinated, and stay home as much as possible. We are in this together and we all have to do our part to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our homes and our communities. Stay strong and keep praying for our people,” Nez said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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