Dean Seneca: ‘Optimistic’ tribes are stepping up to the plate during pandemic

Patty Talahongva

Today on our newscast we have Dean Seneca, chief executive officer of Seneca Scientific Solutions Plus; plus Indian Country Today's Dalton Walker

Dean Seneca is a citizen of the Seneca Nation and for many years he worked at the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention in the area of infectious disease and pandemics.

Seneca was in Sierra Leone in 2014 and helped with the fight against the Ebola pandemic. He was also the first guest on our newscast when it started on April 6th.

Dalton Walker, Indian Country Today’s national correspondent, is back on the newscast with more election coverage.

DEAN SENECA:

“We're seeing now that the whole country is really not ready and we're trying to get up to speed and we have certain parts of the country that are racing.”

“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. But I am optimistic and hopeful and I believe our tribal nations are really stepping up to the plate in most cases.”

“I am a firm believer, I am pro- tribe, and I think the best thing that we can do as tribal nations is exercise our public health authority. We have a handful of tribes really doing that. We have tribes, for example, in Montana that have really just cut off the road to their community and have really prohibited transportation into their community and new people coming in. I think that we have communities in South Dakota that have also done that and we have communities in New Mexico. I do believe that that's the ultimate in protecting your community and we're seeing that worldwide and that when people put travel restrictions in place. That is severely slowing the spread of the virus.”

“Those things are very, very effective. But there are some things that I really feel strongly about that we need to do in order to take that next step. And that is, in order to do effective contact tracing, we really need to move from doing interviews on the phone to doing face to face contact tracing.”

“Epidemiologists are disease detectives just like, you know, detectives and law enforcement and when detectives and law enforcement have to find a suspect or interrogate a suspect they go and see that person face to face, kind of the same principles with the disease detective. They're more effective if they're able to do the work face to face and with contacts.”

“And there's main reasons why. One is that contacts often lie. That is the big thing that we're seeing here. And another really big reason why, is that in the age of cell phones, an unseen number often goes on answered. When people do answer, they think well, it's the government calling. There's a lot of resistance to the government right now. And there's just some very interesting things that have been happening across the nation.”

“For example, in New Jersey, the governor recently reported that you know that they're only getting to 60 percent of the contacts that they are calling. So that's leaving a 40 percent gap, which is huge, but of those 60 percent, there's only a 40 percent providing the information that's needed. Now, that's a whole different scenario when you're meeting with people face to face.”

“Well, what we did in Sierra Leone when we were fighting Ebola, is that we did a whole different approach. We went from passive surveillance to active surveillance. So what we did is in many of the villages, we actively went to village to village and community to community, hut to hut, to actively see cases. And, but we did that all face to face. In many instances, we were facing patients and people who had Ebola and were lying to us about not being infected or not being sick or not having the virus. And when we were actually able to see those folks and properly record them and properly trace, then put people into quarantine. That made a huge difference in response.”

“We literally went from a virus that was rapping in many parts of the country to literally stopping it and halting it in its tracks.”

“That's why I'm so adamant that in our tribal communities, our smaller tribal communities with the limited population, this is the way to go. To go to face to face contact tracing, not doing things over the phone. Going and visiting the community, actually counting people and seeing the environment in which the virus is spreading.”

“One of the big things that was done in Massachusetts actually, was they basically said that our contact tracers have to be from within, they have to be from the poorest communities and they have to be able to speak Spanish and Haitian, as well as any other language that that community might have.”

“Well, we have to support that person. We have to have a lot of empathy, we have to be able to put things in place that basically say that it's not bad if you come into contact with the virus, it's not the worst situation. We have to care for those people.”

“But here's the thing. It doesn't do any benefit to keep secrets. It doesn't help the next person from being infected to keep secrets; it doesn't help others to let people know that you had the virus and you've come into contact with these people.”

“That's the one thing that I've been promoting all along, is that our tribal governments protect our own people. And that is something I've been promoting. We can do this work for ourselves. I feel like many of our tribal nations don't give our own citizens and our own people credit.”

“I am seeing many tribes actually doing just that, collecting their own data, collecting their own information, and doing good surveillance. One of the other benefits in being able to do good surveillance is to be able to provide other services. You don't go there and just do contact tracing, but you ask are you hungry? Do you need any food? And do you need any supplies, do you need baby care, infant care, and then ask things regarding surveillance. You're trying to serve a bunch of needs with a primary goal of doing surveillance.”

“It can be a little invasive, but that's important, but it's also important when people within the community do this work because it's a trusted source or a much more trusted source than somebody totally from the outside.”

“We are sovereign nations. I watched the governors last night on the TV and everybody's asking for a national plan for assistance from the federal government. It's not coming. We need to exercise our own sovereignty and we need to not wait for the federal government, Indian health service or CDC to come in and say, ‘hey, change the way you're collecting data, change the way you're doing contact tracing’. We can do this right now immediately.”

“We could take the steps in order to kind of change the way that we're collecting information from over the phone to face to face and that's where I would come in. I would come in and I could provide assistance and be able to do some training, do some teaching and help our tribal nations make that jump because I am a firm believer and I've seen, I've done the work, I've seen the results, that if we make this step and change from contact tracing over the phone to face to face contact tracing, we will halt this virus and its tracks in many of our tribal communities.”

DALTON WALKER:

“It was a busy day in Minnesota last night on the state and even the city council level. Four out of five Native candidates that we were watching went uncontested and already moved on to the general election. The fifth joined them late last night, Heather Keeler captured the democratic primary in district 4A the Moorhead, Minnesota area with 66% of the vote. She's a favorite in November but she told me last night that she plans to continue her aggressive social distance campaign to get the message out.”

“Last night on the city level, two Ojibwe women move on to a runoff for council seats, one in Bemidji and one in Cloquet. Audrey Thayer received the most votes in a 5-person race in Bemidji and Lyz Jaakola received the most votes in a three person primary in Cloquet. Both towns are considered border towns to reservations and a Native woman already sits on the Cloquet Council meaning if Jaakola wins in November, the city will have two.”

“On Tuesday night we knew of five state candidates running for state office in Minnesota and this morning I learned of another thanks to an Indian Country Today reader. Donna Bergstrom, Red Lake Nation, is seeking the state's district 7 seat and ran uncontested in the Republican primary. This means in November, three Native candidates are seeking a state house seat and three are in the running for a state Senate seat.”

“Well, Keeler is interesting because she's Yankton Sioux I believe from South Dakota. So she moved up to the Fargo, Moorhead area which has a nice Native population on both sides from the North Dakota side and the Minnesota side.”

“We must note that Wisconsin held its primary on Tuesday and two Ho-Chunk women ran unopposed in the democratic primary, including Trisha Zunker, who was running for U.S. House. Amanda White Eagle is running for state assembly for district 92. So exciting times ahead in Wisconsin.”

“When we learned of the news, I was kind of looking around, keeping a tab on what they were saying on social media or even what they were speaking about. And I didn't see anything regarding Biden's pick of Harris initially but it's so new. I wouldn't be surprised if something comes up in the days ahead. And especially with the ones who are a clear runner for the clear winner of their primary heading into November.”

“I'll have to jump on our spreadsheet. We've been really working hard on trying to make sure we cover each primary and find each Native candidate out there. And it's been tough but it's also been a lot of fun. We have a nice team at Indian Country Today looking up, reaching out to people. So I ask our readers, if you know someone that we may have missed, it wasn't on purpose.” 

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