‘Worried sick’ about spreading virus during pipeline construction

FILE - In this March 3, 2020, photo, Candi Brings Plenty, center, prays outside the Capitol in Pierre, S.D. Major construction projects moving forward along the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico amid the coronavirus pandemic are raising fears workers could spread infections within nearby communities, including several Native American tribes. Plenty, an Indigenous justice organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the organization is trying to figure out creative ways to protest while still following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (AP Photo/Stephen Groves, File)

Indian Country Today

CDC urges everyone to wear a mask in public (but president says it's voluntary and he won't do that) * Updated 7 MST

Major construction projects moving forward along the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico are raising fears the coronavirus could race through temporary work camps and spread to rural and tribal communities unable to handle an outbreak.

Despite a clampdown on people's movements in much of the country, groups of workers will start construction this month on the disputed Keystone XL oil pipeline, another Trump-supported project that could bring thousands of workers to rural communities in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska.

Tribal leaders and state officials have warned that the influx of outsiders could make problems worse in rural areas with little or no medical infrastructure capable of dealing with a surge of infections. The border wall and pipeline are exempt from stay-at-home restrictions intended to reduce the virus's spread.

Faith Spotted Eagle, an environmental activist and member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, said she's reminded of her grandmother's stories about the tribe's struggles to survive smallpox and the Spanish flu.

"It's the 1800s again, the cavalry is coming in and they're going to set up their fort, whether it's justified or not," she said.

Just south of the Canadian border, workers began arriving last month in the small Montana town of Glasgow bordering the Fort Peck Assiniboine-Sioux Nation where they'll stay during the 1,200-mile pipeline project. Keystone would carry up to 830,000 barrels (35 million gallons) of crude daily to a Nebraska terminal for refining or export through the Gulf of Mexico.

First proposed in 2008, the pipeline was rejected twice under President Barack Obama and revived by Trump. Alberta's government said it's investing more than $1 billion to get work going quickly.

Calgary-based TC Energy, the project's sponsor, negotiated with health officials in Montana on a plan to minimize risks, including checking everyone entering work sites for fever and ensuring workers practice social distancing.

"Is it a perfect system? No. It's the best we can do to protect the county and our workers from them and them from us," said Anne Millard, health officer for Valley County, where the workers are staying.

The company had planned to build 11 camps housing up to 1,000 workers each along the pipeline's route — six in Montana, four in South Dakota and one in Nebraska. Those plans are now under review, and Millard and other officials say they don't expect camps to be built until after the immediate threat of the virus has passed.

"We're very cognizant of what's going on," TC Energy spokesman Terry Cunha said. "We're talking about thousands of jobs. ... We want to make sure what they do will ensure the safety of everybody." The company says the $8 billion project would create more than 10,000 construction jobs, with about 100 workers initially at the border crossing.

Several tribes whose land is skirted by the proposed pipeline route in South Dakota and Montana have enacted stricter coronavirus measures than the states. Tribal members worry what a widespread outbreak would do to people already at risk because many have diabetes and high blood pressure.

Spotted Eagle said she did not believe quarantining workers and regular screenings would be enough to keep communities safe. Many health clinics have just a few beds and even fewer ventilators.

Floyd Azure, chairman of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes on Montana's Fort Peck Reservation, said the virus has so far spared the reservation.

He has no authority to stop work on the pipeline, which would run just outside the reservation's boundaries. Azure worries construction workers will bring a repeat of the problems that accompanied an oil boom in the region last decade — from drugs to sex trafficking — now exacerbated by the virus.

"We're worried sick about it. We have enough problems on this reservation without someone creating more for us," he said.

CDC says wear masks (President: Do as I say …)

The White House says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that people now cover their faces when leaving the home, especially around other people.

But President Donald Trump is calling it “voluntary” and says he himself won’t wear a mask. Says Trump: “I’m choosing not to do it.”

The latest guidance suggests that Americans use makeshift coverings, such as T-shirts, scarves or bandanas to cover their noses and mouths. Medical-grade masks, especially N95 masks, are to be reserved for those on the front lines of trying to contain the pandemic.

The policy change comes as public health officials are concerned that those without symptoms can spread the virus which causes COVID-19.

29 new cases on the Navajo Nation

The Navajo Department of Health and Navajo Area Indian Health Service, in coordination with the Navajo Epidemiology Center, reported that the total number of positive tests for COVID-19 has reached 270 for the Navajo Nation as of Friday, an increase of 29 cases since Thursday. There are 12 confirmed deaths related to COVID-19. A total of 2,353 COVID-19 tests have been administered, with 1,796 negative results as of Thursday.

Navajo Police Chief Phillip B. Francisco said enforcement officers will being issuing citations and fines for individuals who violate the Navajo Nation’s “Stay at Home Order” and daily curfew that requires all residents to be home between 8:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m.

“We’re at a point where the number of new cases will continue to climb each day, unless everyone begins to take this matter serious. Today, we received reports of bingo games taking place in a few areas – this needs to stop immediately! We have a public health crisis going on, and this is the type of irresponsible activities that put us all at risk,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

“We have to meet our prayers half way by making smart decisions. Stay home, stay safe, save lives is the key to ending this pandemic. Unfortunately, it’s going to get worse before it gets better, but we are in this together. Many people are recovering from the virus and we hope to have an estimate on that number soon. Don’t lose hope because we will beat this together,” stated Vice President Myron Lizer.

President Nez and Vice President Lizer will hold another online town hall COVID-19 update on Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (MDT) via Facebook. Radio forums are also scheduled for Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:00 p.m. on KTNN 660AM and 101.5FM. 

First case reported at Ho Chunk

The Ho Chunk Department of Health reports its first confirmed case of COVID-19 this week. “We received notification of our first positive case,” the tribal department said on its web page.

The tribe has added a number of responses, including temperature checks for people entering the building. “The situation continues to evolve on a daily basis as new information becomes available.”

First case reported at Shoshone-Bannock

The Sho-Ban News reported Friday the first positive coronavirus case for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Idaho. There were no additional details however Tribal Chairman Ladd Edmo was giving an update from the council chambers on Facebook.

San Manuel: 'No layoffs'

The Business Committee of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians announced Friday that its casino would remain closed through April 30.

"When we think about scenarios where the casino does not re-open on May 1, we recognize two very different realities: that we want to care for our team members in every way we can, and that we must preserve the future financial viability of our enterprise. We have worked tirelessly on a solution and can report that during this period there will be no layoffs," the statement said. "The Business Committee has elected to forfeit compensation during this period. Team members at all levels will continue to receive their full benefits, but will see their compensation reduced, with senior staff impacted most significantly."

The statement said: "While we don’t know what’s around the corner, we are working hard to keep our team intact for as long as we can. We want to thank our team members, guests and partners for their patience during this time."

Tribal layoffs in Minnesota

At least two Minnesota Ojibwe tribes are laying off non-essential tribal government employees and encouraging them to apply for unemployment benefits.

The White Earth Nation and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe both made the announcement on Friday due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The layoffs go in effect for White Earth on Monday and on Sunday for Leech Lake employees.

Tribal governments across Indian Country started to suspend daily operations in March and many placed employees on administrative leave in what was considered a temporary option. Tribal casinos and other tribal businesses have temporarily shut down and some tribes have implemented checkpoints at reservation boundary lines to curb non-essential traffic.

“When the decision was made to shut down all nonessential operations and move the majority of our staff to administrative leave, we knew it was not sustainable beyond the short term,” Leech Lake Chairman Faron Jackson Sr., said in a statement Friday.

Jackson said the layoff is temporary and affected employees will be recalled once the tribe deems it safe. It’s unclear how many Leech Lake employees are affected. A call to Jackson was not immediately returned.

White Earth Chairman Mike Fairbanks made a similar announcement a couple hours after Jackson’s. He said more than 1,000 tribal government and casino workers will be affected. The tribe shutdown its casino on March 18 and limited its government operations two days later. Non-essential staff were given administrative leave for two weeks, Fairbanks said. With the casino closed and not much other revenue coming in, Fairbanks said now was the time to act.

“For the best practice and safety of well being of our employees and our communities, we made some tough decisions based upon the current COVID-19 threat,” Jackson said in a statement.

Both tribes are guiding employees to its human resources department to help with any unemployment benefit questions.

Hopi Tribe extends stay at home order

The Hopi Tribe’s Executive Stay-At-Home Order for residents and non-essential employees will remain in effect until April 17, 2020. Residents should stay at home except for necessities and emergency medical purposes.

The tribe said the latest figures released by the Indian Health Service show a total number of 39 individuals tested, 7 patients have tested positive, 21 patients have tested negative and 11 are pending.

“This news should be an indication of just how important it is that people comply with the stay at home order,” Said Hopi Vice-Chairman Clark Tenakhongva. “This means staying where you are, not going out, not traveling to or from any place outside the reservation, practicing good hygiene and avoiding unnecessary social interaction and large groups.”

“Adhering to the Social Distancing recommendations put out by the CDC and reiterated in the State-at-home order that was issued by the Hopi Tribe, have been shown to prevent the spread of the virus,” said Royce Jenkins Director of the Hopi Department of Health and Human Services. “But these precautions, as well as many of the other guidelines and protocols our department has issued for restaurants and grocery stores on the reservation are only effective if they are followed to the fullest extent”

IHS letter to tribes and urban Indian organizations

The Indian Health Service says it will begin distributing $1 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES act beginning immediately. “This new law also provides a health care response and emergency assistance for individuals, families, and businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and provides emergency appropriations to support Executive Branch agency operations during the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote IHS Principal Deputy Director Michael Weahkee. The letter said the agency conducted “rapid” tribal consultation to shape its funding allocations. It said that tribes supported resources spread across all levels of IHS “without any set-asides for hotspots.”

John Wayne’s teeth

The movie “Smoke Signals” captured the irony of John Wayne in Indian Country with a song.

“John Wayne's teeth, John Wayne's teeth. Are they plastic, are they steel?”

No answers to that question. But some homeless Native Americans could soon be staying in a hotel room made famous by visiting stars, including John Wayne.

The Gallup Independent reported that El Rancho Hotel agreed this week to offer its space if health care workers needed places for critical patients affected by COVID-19.

El Rancho Hotel officials said patients will be placed in a separate building across the parking lot from the central hotel. The building has enough space for up to 20 homeless people.

The hotel agreed to lend space after it was called by New Mexico's governor's office.

State officials are working to locate additional space to accommodate a potential surge in COVID-19 patients needing hospital care.

Located on Route 66 near the Arizona state line, El Rancho Hotel hosted John Wayne as well as actors (and future president) Ronald Reagan, Katherine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy.

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Arizona State University gives a shout out to basketball alum "Dr. Michelle Tom." She's working in Winslow, Arizona. (Photo via ASU Sun Devil Women's Basketball page.)

A shout out from ASU to basketball alum

On Facebook a shout out from Arizona State University. "Our #SunDevilWBB family could not be any more proud of alum Dr. Michelle Tom. She is serving on the frontline at a hospital in Winslow, AZ, a small town on the southern border of the Navajo Nation. Thank YOU Michelle!"

WNBA will delay season

The National Basketball Association’s season came to a sudden end on March 11, 2020 when a player for the Utah Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus right before tip off. The announcement ended the game against the Oklahoma Thunder before it began.

Now the Women’s National Basketball Association is announcing a delay in the start of its season. Players and fans would have watched the first tip off next month.

In a statement released today, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert wrote, “As developments continue to emerge around the COVID-19 pandemic, including the extension of the social distancing guidelines in the United States through April 30, the WNBA will postpone the start of its training camps and tip of the regular season originally scheduled for May 15.”

She did not give a new start date.

Engelbert continued, “While the league continues to use this time to conduct scenario-planning regarding new start dates and innovative formats, our guiding principle will continue to be the health and safety of the players, fans and employees.”

The Connecticut Sun is owned by the Mohegan Tribe, the only team in the league owned by an American Indian tribe.

Engelbert says the 2020 draft will take place, virtually, on April 17th. The remote coverage will start at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.

“We continue to send our thoughts and prayers to our players, fans, and all of those in the community impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and are grateful to those selfless health care workers and first responders who work tirelessly on the front lines,” wrote Engelbert.

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-- Dalton Walker, Patty Talahongva, and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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