Timeline: How the pandemic unfolded in Indian Country

Cherokee Nation citizen Betty Frogg receives a COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 17, 2020. The Cherokee Nation dedicated early coronavirus vaccines to front-line health care workers and Cherokee language speakers. (Photo courtesy of Cherokee Nation)

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye

A look back at the year that changed the world, communities, and human habits

Time.

When we look back on the year, time held more weight than we could imagine. The year came and went. (To many, it felt like five years.)

We found out how upset Mother Earth can get when she isn’t treated right for hundreds of years. Scientists have been long warning the world about this connection between climate change and pandemics. A 2016 study said: “Climate change can affect human health, especially when infectious diseases are concerned.”

The virus first began gaining attention in China’s Wuhan City in December 2019.

It then showed up in Washington state on Jan. 21 when a resident returned from Wuhan City.

Six weeks later, the first COVID-19 case appeared in Indian Country, on the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon.

That means it took just three months for the virus to pop up on tribal lands since it is believed to have taken on its existence.

Two weeks later, two cases showed up on the Navajo Nation, and it multiplied to 26 in five days. As of Dec. 23, the largest land-based tribe has 21,513 positive cases and lost 755 people since the start of the pandemic.

The Indian Health Service counts 135,537 positive cases out of the 1,611,753 people tested for the virus as of Dec. 22.

And this isn’t all of the data for Native Americans and Alaska Natives. In fact, data became more important than ever. It led Indian Country Today to create its own database and partner with the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health.

A comprehensive database is only part of the documentation. Each number is a person, a story. Indian Country Today made it a mission to document the lives of those lost to the pandemic through a series called Portraits from the Pandemic. Because they are more than an asterisk. Indian Country lost elders, children, moms, dads, siblings, aunts, uncles, leaders and more to the virus.

In this loss, we found out how closely we should’ve held each other, how being in the same room with another person is sacred, to appreciate a conversation with the cashier, how learning traditional ways shouldn’t come at a financial cost, how important Native humor is, to not take small gatherings for granted, and to enjoy a loved one’s presence.

The virus tested community ties, relationships, friendships, cultures, health and public health infrastructures, and our own health.

We learned how intangible time is, but to recognize how it shows up as a community, appreciation, kindness, and love.

Even though we know more about the virus and have vaccines being implemented, it’s still unknown how this could affect our elders, children and communities down the road.

Here's a timeline of how the pandemic unraveled in and affect Indian Country:

December 2019: First COVID-19 cases emerged in Wuhan City, China.

January 21, 2020: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies the first COVID-19 case in the United States, in Washington state.

February 26: In the past few hundred years more than half of the Alaska Native population was decimated by wave after wave of diseases such as the measles, smallpox, diphtheria, whooping cough and tuberculosis. Then a devastating worldwide influenza epidemic forever changed Alaska’s demographics, making Natives a minority in their homeland.

“Indigenous people all over the world were especially vulnerable; some were not just decimated but sometimes annihilated. … Native Americans ‘suffered hideously,’ with mortality rates four times higher than in the wider population.”

Read more on what the pandemic was like 100 years ago, “A century ago ... so much like now.”

March 1: Epidemiologists described COVID-19 as a pandemic. But the World Health Organization called the spread an “epidemic.”

The coronavirus disease “has pandemic potential,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization on Feb. 26. “Using the word pandemic carelessly has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralyzing systems.”

Yet beyond the words, epidemic or pandemic, warnings about a fast-spreading virus has been a part of the literature on climate change.

Scientists say the world isn’t prepared to deal with a global pandemic.

This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. A novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). (Photo by Alissa Eckert, MS, Dan Higgins, MAMS, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. (Photo by Alissa Eckert, MS, Dan Higgins, MAMS, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

March 2: An employee from the Wildhorse Resort and Casino, owned by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, was the third presumptive positive case of COVID-19 in Oregon.

The tribe went into emergency mode after being notified of the case. The individual, who is non-Native and not a tribal citizen, was treated at a non-Indian Health Service facility.

March 3: Tribes are not ready.

“I want to make sure that I stated that Tribes are not prepared for the coronavirus,” Dean Seneca texted Indian Country Today a day after an initial interview. The day before that he was more cautious, saying, “I don't think that we are as prepared as we should be.”

What changed? Two reasons: The infection rate and the amount of time a person is asymptomatic.

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Personnel at the The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) work the Emergency Operations Center in response to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, among other things, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)

March 12: Many Native students have to worry about how to get home after campus closures.

March 14: Tribes begin casino closures.

March 17: Four IHS cases confirmed; ‘serious public health threat’

The Indian Health Service confirmed what everyone already knows: Indian Country will not be immune from the global coronavirus pandemic.

During a media conference call, the Indian Health Service confirmed three COVID-19 cases, one in the Navajo area, another in the Great Plains area, and the third is in the Portland area. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez confirmed the second case on the nation Tuesday evening on KTNN.

March 18: Indian Country Today started its COVID-19 database for Indian Country.

COVID-19 in Indian Country cover photo

March 20: Spike reported in Navajo Nation cases.

The number of positive COVID-19 cases in the Navajo Nation has grown to 14, a dramatic increase from the three confirmed cases reported only a day ago.

The announcement came hours after a 55-year-old Cherokee Nation citizen was the first coronavirus related death in Oklahoma. Before the Navajo Nation announcement late Thursday, March 19, there were nine cases confirmed in the Indian health system.

March 20: People are not taking COVID-19 seriously, said Dean Seneca. Unfortunate if it takes mass casualties to “open people's eyes.”

March 22: Five days tells the coronavirus story: Caseload jumps from two to 26 for the Navajo Nation.

March 23: “I want America to understand this week, it's going to get bad … “Right now, there are not enough people out there who are taking this seriously.”

March 24: A total of 68 positive cases, according to the Indian Health Service.

March 26: Dr. Sara Jager from Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation wrote that the facility needs supplies; third coronavirus relief package includes funding for tribal colleges and universities.

Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation’s first positive COVID-19 test was a deceased 49-year-old male with underlying health conditions.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe confirmed a positive COVID-19 case which is in Todd County. It is likely this is the tribe’s first case.

There are now 89 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases and three deaths in the Indian health system, according to Indian Country Today’s database.

March 30: First reporters’ roundtable with Navajo Times reporter Pauly Denetclaw.

April 1: The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Oglala Sioux Tribes in South Dakota establish their checkpoints to protect their people, leading to Gov. Kristi Noem’s criticism. See the timeline of events here.

In this Feb. 28, 2017, file photo, Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe leaves federal court in Washington. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem appeared headed Monday, May 11, 2020, for a legal confrontation with two Native American Indian tribes over highway checkpoints intended to keep the coronavirus away from their reservations. Both tribes said over the weekend the checkpoints would stand on their reservations. “We will not apologize for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death,” Frazier said in a statement. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen File)
In this Feb. 28, 2017, photo, Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe leaves federal court in Washington. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

April 2: The White House said the Indian Health Service will get rapid test kits.

April 5: 'This is our Pearl Harbor moment' ... and Indian Country is right there

The Navajo Nation has more confirmed COVID-19 cases than the states of West Virginia, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska or Guam and the Virgin Islands.

The Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara Nation’s COVID-19 cases nearly doubled over the weekend to at least 14, according to its community dashboard.

April 7: Two pueblos, Zia and San Felipe Pueblos, have some of the highest infection rates in US. Higher than New York City.

April 12: The federal government is moving quickly to transfer $8 billion to tribes. Should Alaska Native corporations be considered the same as tribes?

April 13: The COVID-19 hit to Indian Country is nearly $50 billion.

April 25: Four Indigenous researchers found in a new study that the rate of COVID-19 cases per 1,000 people on a reservation is more than four times higher than the United States as a whole.

Read more here: Behind those COVID-19 numbers

April 27: Judge halts distribution of relief funding to Alaska Native corporations.

May 1: New Mexico pueblo, San Felipe, fights a high infection rate.

COVID-19 Tracker - 5-6 morning

May 11: South Dakota tribes stand firm behind checkpoints.

“We will not apologize for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death,” Cheyenne River Sioux Chairman Harold Frazier said in a statement aimed at Gov. Kristi Noem

May 21: 'We sounded the alarm' about Navajo Nation months ago ... and the federal government failed.

May 29: Indian Country Today partnered with the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health to build a more comprehensive COVID-19 database.

On Wednesday, the United States passed a grim marker: 100,000 people have died during this pandemic. Our current tally of deaths in Indian Country stands at 229.

May 30: Alaska airline shutdown: 'How are we gonna get our food, our mail, our medical needs?'

June 2:Fighting COVID-19 like building an airplane while flying.”

June 18: Funeral arrangements and everything related to being affected.

"So storage has become a big issue, not just our funeral home, but all funeral homes in general,” Robert “Rob” Gill, a licensed funeral director and certified cremationist in Minnesota. On his business: "It has, it has [increased] it is noticeable."

June 24: What tribal colleges are facing.

"We're buying miles and miles of plexiglass, for example, making their cafeterias safe or physically distancing while students are having meals, the classrooms, making more space in the classrooms, spreading out classes, spreading out students. The dorms, a number of our colleges have dorms. So creating safe space in dorms is also a challenge. So a lot of the funding that tribal colleges received is going to those kinds of things. And we're hoping there's enough left over to help with the internet."

July 2: Social isolation and social distancing affecting mental health.

Mental health in Indian Country during COVID-19. (Illustration by Taylor Bennett-Begaye)
Mental health in Indian Country during COVID-19. (Illustration by Taylor Bennett-Begaye)

August 5: Health care professionals and grassroots leaders in Indian Country are reporting surprising bright spots in ways that Native people are responding to mental health challenges generated by COVID-19.

August 12: Tribes are catching up and stepping up.

“Many of our tribal communities are trying to catch up now overall besides for Navajo nation areas of New Mexico and Arizona, we're doing okay. I did see that we do have some numbers in Oklahoma that definitely need to be a concern as well as Portland and in the national area,” said epidemiologist Dean Seneca. “But I am optimistic and hopeful and I believe our tribal nations are really stepping up to the plate in most cases.”

August 22: Infection rates at least 3.5 times higher for Native Americans; young especially at risk, according to the CDC.

August 26: Yakama Nation Chairman Delano Saluskin: “We have 11,500 tribal members and we have had almost 2,900 tests and we've lost 35 tribal members. So we probably have recovered around 2,850 or so.”

Aug 31, 2020 covid-19 indian country

September 12: Navajo Nation takes part in COVID vaccine study

September 21: Dr. Anthony Fauci praises Navajo Nation, talks vaccine trial

October 2: “Many students moved back home, many chose to say wherever they were located.”

Students return to Arizona State University and it's looking a little different this semester.

October 16: Wisconsin is a hotspot.

With Wisconsin experiencing a spike in positive coronavirus cases. Doctor Lyle Ignace joins us from the badger state to tell us how he is addressing the pandemic in a way that respects cultural and traditional methods of healing.

October 21: “ … California tribal communities are starting to see an increase in cases” as the state opens up.

Vanesscia Cresci, director for the research and public health department for the California Rural Indian Health Board, gives an update on how tribes in California are dealing with an increase in coronavirus cases.

“... parts of California are starting to open and starting to allow more types of services … So there are communities surrounding them that are opening up which will result in cases in their tribal communities."

December 11: Vaccine is on its way.

Indian Health Service is expected to receive 46,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine and 22,425 doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

Birdie Lyons received the COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020 at the Cass Lake Hospital on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of Vince Rock)
Birdie Lyons received the COVID-19 vaccine on Monday,  at the Cass Lake Hospital on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of Vince Rock)

December 14: First COVID-19 vaccine hits Indian Country.

The first Indian health system facility to receive the COVID-19 vaccine was a hospital in northern Minnesota on Ojibwe land.

December 15: Hard hit southwest Alaska receives vaccine

Southwest Alaska has one of the nation’s highest rates of infection from COVID-19, resulting in its early vaccine acquisition.

December 16: First vaccine; second is a challenge

In 2014, Seneca citizen Dean Seneca went to the West African country of Sierra Leone to help in the fight against the Ebola pandemic.

"We could never get anybody to come back for that second dose because they were in the bush and they were traveling long distances. And I could see the challenge in many of our tribal regions North and South Dakota, Alaska for example and throughout all of Indian Country because Indian Country is very rural in nature and character anyway,” Seneca said. “So getting the first vaccine I think that that is going to be easy getting the return for people to take the second shot. I think it is going to be the challenge."

December 20: Deadline looms for tribes’ CARES Act spending

December 21: The safety of the COVID-19 vaccine from the National Institutes of Health.

Dave Wilson, PhD and director of the tribal health research office at the National Institutes of Health is on the newscast discussing the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines.

“Our goal is to really communicate the clinical trial process and what the makeup of these vaccines are and the history of these vaccines and how they actually work,” Wilson said. “There's a lot of fear. There's a lot of misinformation that's out there. Our goal is not to persuade any tribal nations, but it's to provide them with the most amount of accurate and clear communication so that our communities can exercise their tribal sovereignty and make that decision whether they want to have clinical trials available to their community members.”

December 22: The Indian Health Service has tracked 135,537 positive cases out of the 1,611,753 people tested for the virus.

December 30: Deadline for tribes to spend all of the CARES Act funding. If not, they will have to return the unspent funds to the Treasury Department. 

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Read more of the COVID-19 coverage here.

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the deputy managing editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb or email her at jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com. Bennett-Begaye’s Grey’s Anatomy obsession started while attending the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

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