While the United States flounders in its response to the coronavirus, another nation — one within our own borders — is faring much better.
With a mask mandate in place since spring, free drive-through testing, hospitals well-stocked with PPE, and a small army of public health officers fully supported by their chief, the Cherokee Nation has been able to curtail its Covid-19 case and death rates even as those numbers surge in surrounding Oklahoma, where the White House coronavirus task force says spread is unyielding.
Elsewhere in the U.S., tribal areas have been hit hard by the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that American Indian and Alaskan Native populations have case rates 3.5 times higher than that of white individuals. The Navajo Nation, where Covid testing, PPE, and sometimes even running water are in short supply, has seen nearly 13,000 cases and 602 deaths among its roughly 170,000 citizens. The Cherokee Nation, with about 140,000 citizens on its reservation in northeastern Oklahoma, has reported just over 4,000 cases and 33 deaths.
“It’s dire, but what in the world would it look like if we weren’t doing this work?’” said Lisa Pivec, senior director of public health for Cherokee Nation Health Services. Pivec leads a team that jumped into action in late February, holding coronavirus task force meetings twice a day, instituting procedures to screen thousands of employees, stockpiling PPE, protecting elders, ensuring food security, and educating residents in both English and Cherokee language. With no guidance on contact tracing available from the CDC early in the pandemic, Pivec researched the World Health Organization’s Ebola response to set up tracing protocols; after the first case appeared on the reservation March 24, she made many of the contact tracing calls herself.
She said the Cherokee Nation has seen no cases of workplace transmission; Sequoyah High School, with rapid testing and masks, reopened for in-person learning this fall; and elective medical and dental procedures have been widely restored.
The tribe’s Covid response meets the approval of global health leaders. “It’s very impressive. It’s a reminder of how much leadership matters and how even under difficult circumstances, with limited resources, you can make a huge difference,” said Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “It fits with what I’ve seen in the world. You see countries like Vietnam. They’re not a wealthy country, but they’ve been following the science and doing a great job.” [Continue reading…]