'COVID Has Really Hit Our Nation': Oklahoma Tribes Reporting High COVID Cases

Nov 19, 2020

On Monday, the Cherokee Nation hit a grim milestone in its battle against COVID-19. The Nation's ICU beds were at capacity with coronavirus patients. But the number fluctuates and they will be able to transport patients to other facilities.

Cherokee Nation is reporting more than 4,300 cases of COVID-19 and is asking citizens to limit in-person gatherings through the upcoming holiday. The Nation has lost a number of elders and first language speakers to the disease.

With restrictions in place that are more extensive than the state of Oklahoma, the Nation’s health officials hope precautions like suspending routine dental visits, expanded testing and mask mandates will help control the spread and ease the strain on medical facilities including W.W. Hastings Hospital in Tahlequah.

Todd Enlow, Cherokee Nation's Chief of Staff, sees the surge in Tribal cases coincide with the rise in cases at the state level. That's because outside communities don't have as strict of guidelines as Cherokee Nation.

"The problem is that most communities do not have a good mask policy, or protocol or law in place to ask people to wear a mask," said Enlow.

As of Wednesday, the Oklahoma State Department of Health reports more than 161,000 Oklahomans have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 1,500 have died.

Enlow is confident the infection rates aren't occuring in Cherokee Nation workplaces or facilities.

"Our employees go home, they go interact in the community, they go pick up the kids from school," said Enlow.

Tribes Throughout the State Taking Action

Citizen Potawatomi Nation also has restrictions in place, including a mask mandate that applies to all enterprises and offices. That's been in place since mid-July.

FireLake Discount Foods has increased the number of online orders available and dedicates the first hour of shopping each day to those who are high risk. They have also imposed a shopper limit in the store.

Gaming operations are also limited, only allowing the buildings to be at 50 percent occupancy. Dine-in options are also limited to 50 percent at Grand Casino and tables are spaced six feet apart. Dine-in is closed at FireLake Pizza and FireLake Fry Bread Taco.

Quarantines, testing, contact tracing is in effect for all employees who have been exposed or have symptoms. Employees remain quarantined until they test negative for COVID-19.

Even with these precautions, Citizen Potawatomi Nation continues to see an increase in cases with more than 500 infections at the time of publishing.

Choctaw Nation is also worried about rising COVID-19 cases, with more than 11,000 cases in the 11 counties inside the Nation’s boundaries.

"The Choctaw Nation Office of Emergency Management and Health Services Authority has led our response to the pandemic by following national best practices and guidelines," Casey Davis, spokesperson for Choctaw Nation wrote in an email. "We have adjusted our major in-person events to virtual offerings, established remote work procedures for our associates, and ensured all of our businesses have strong and extensive measures in place to protect our guests. We have mask requirements at all of our facilities and associates must attest to being symptom-free when reporting for work."

Muscogee (Creek) Nation has also been affected, as some of its elders walked on because of the virus. Principal Chief David Hill pleaded with citizens in a Facebook video to mask up and avoid holiday gatherings.

"COVID has really hit our Nation," Chief Hill said in a somber tone. "It has touched a lot of our citizens. Please take all precautions."

Osage Nation is also struggling with the effects of COVID-19. Like many other Tribes, their offices remain open, but Osage Nation employees are working under a Public Health State of Emergency developed in collaboration with their Wah-Zha-Zhi Health Center. Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear contracted the coronavirus in early November, but he is recovering.

An Abdication of Responsibility

On Monday, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt ordered new restrictions on bars and restaurants and enacted a mask mandate for state employees, but he continues to reject a statewide mask mandate as COVID-19 cases rise sharply in the state.

Stitt’s resistance has led Tribes to enact stronger restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

In early October, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. pressed Stitt on mandating masks, calling it an abdication of responsibility.

"I've become frustrated over time that some of our leaders in the country and certainly Governor Stitt seem to ignore this very basic piece of advice from public health experts," Hoskin Jr. said.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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