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Omicron surge affecting Indian Health Service too, but Oklahoma official says they're prepared

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The Oklahoma City Area Indian Health Service said the agency performed nearly 41,000 COVID tests last week. Nearly 40 percent came back positive.

That trend has continued, but Admiral Greggory Woitte, the chief medical officer for the Oklahoma City Clinic, said they had been preparing for months. They anticipated another surge in COVID cases and began ordering at-home test kits for patients during the fall months of 2020.

"It's valuable for us, for the patients to test at home so that if they turn positive, they can quarantine and avoid coming into our health care systems, which are already overburdened," said Woitte.

The Indian Health Service has also seen an increase in hospitalizations due to the recent surge caused by the omicron variant.

Woitte said in many cases, patients are coming in for other health issues without symptoms of COVID-19, but positive tests are revealing asymptomatic cases among these patients. "The hospitalizations are staying about the same, we have seen an increase in the patients that are in the hospital as being COVID positive, but we aren't seeing as many as we've seen in previous surges," said Woitte.

Being prepared

Sometimes tribal health systems don’t have access to all of the materials they might need for surges. They have limited access to the Strategic National Stockpile of medical equipment and supplies, and the access they do have is not guaranteed.

To ensure equal access to the Strategic National Stockpile for tribal health systems, Rep. Tom Cole, Co-Chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus (Chickasaw, R-OK) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced a bipartisan bill in 2020. Six senators and representatives have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill, including Rep. Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk, D-KS), Co-Chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus.

“When the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services taps into our Strategic National Stockpile and distributes out to prevent shortages in communities across the nation, it is simply common sense to include Native communities,” said Cole.

Woitte said Indian Health Service in Oklahoma did access the Strategic National Stockpile for ventilators, and they currently have enough supply for people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Indigenous people are 3.5 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than non-Indigenous people, and the outcomes are worse. Native Americans are more than four times more likely to be hospitalized for the disease and nearly twice as likely to die from complications.

On Jan. 18, 36 people were hospitalized in Oklahoma tribal healthcare facilities. Eight of those people were in Intensive Care Units (ICU). The seven-day average for positive COVID cases was 10,476 in the state, the highest it has been since the pandemic began. Nearly 13,000 people have died from the disease in the state.

Updated: January 19, 2022 at 11:18 AM CST
Numbers from the Oklahoma City Area Indian Health Service have been updated.
Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
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