Tribe braces for coronavirus

BY CHAD HUNTER
Reporter
02/28/2020 11:30 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Matt Dunn, a researcher for the Center for Vaccine Research at the University of Pittsburgh, holds dead samples of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on Feb. 27 at the Biomedical Science Tower 3 in Oakland, Pennsylvania. As of Feb. 28, the new virus had infected more than 83,000 people worldwide and killed more than 2,800 people. NATE GUIDRY/PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE VIA AP
TAHLEQUAH — As the coronavirus has spread across the globe, Cherokee Nation leaders have been preparing for the worst.

“It’s just going to take a few cases for coronavirus to take off in the United States,” CN Public Health Medical Director Dr. David Gahn told Tribal Councilors during their Feb. 27 health sub-committee meeting. “The experts are now saying it’s very likely that will happen.”

As of March 11, the COVID-19 coronavirus had killed more than 4,000 people and infected more than 1100,000 worldwide, according to national media reports. The U.S. outbreak had grown to at least 760 cases, two of which were reported in the Tulsa area.

“I think what concerns me the most is the data are telling us that up to a third of people who become sick require intensive care unit,” Gahn said. “We don’t have that many intensive care units. In Oklahoma, if we have an outbreak, you know, that’s what our emergency management teams are looking at — how are we going to take care of the people that become ill? Then the doctors start getting ill, and the ambulance drivers and the nurses, the housekeepers and the dietary staff, then the schools close — all the worst-case scenarios. So we’re making plans for all that.”

Gahn talked about efforts to prepare for the coronavirus.

“I think the hardest part the experts are having is we just don’t know much about the virus, how it spreads,” he said. “Korea has lost control of the spread of the spread of the virus. The latest data tell us that the mortality rate is about 3.4% compared to influenza, which is about 0.1%.”

He added that of particular concern “is that where the virus is now spreading in Korea, Japan and Italy, there are a lot of U.S. citizens living there. We have nationally a system to help those people come back to the United States if they want to, and the states have monitoring systems.”

He added that in late February, 60 people returned to Oklahoma from locations in which coronavirus was endemic.

“They have been monitored,” Gahn said, “and the state has been very successful, very active monitoring twice a day checking on them, checking their temperature, making sure they are not getting sick.”

In response, emergency agencies, including Cherokee Nation’s, are planning and “talking through the different scenarios,” Gahn said.

“We’re confident that we’ll have the plans in place,” he said. “We’re going to be prepared.”

The CN held coronavirus-related meetings in late February.

“We have called a meeting across several disciplines from financial resources to public health to emergency management to our facility operations,” CN Chief of Staff Todd Enlow said. “Should that get to that point, we’re going to look at travel outside the state with our employees because at any one time we may have several hundred employees that may be traveling to different locations for trainings and conferences. So we want to look at this throughout our whole system, as well as child care centers and Head Starts.”
Enlow added that the CN wants to get “on top of this before it gets to us.”

“We want to be prepared in the event that this happens,” he said. “We’re going to ask our emergency management and our public health experts to help take the lead and drive the conversation.”

Gahn said the state of Oklahoma does not yet possess a test for the COVID-19 virus.

“It’s not a simple test and not easily replicated,” he said. “The state epidemiologist expects Oklahoma to have the ability to test soon. That’s the best he could tell us. Remember, the coronavirus is the same virus that causes the common cold. We have a machine that tests for different strains of the coronavirus, but not this strain specifically. So there might be people that present to our health system that get tested and someone tells them, ‘yeah you have the coronavirus.’ It’s not this one. It’s not the COVID-19 novel coronavirus because that won’t show up on our machine.”

Cherokee Public Health Goals 2020

Lisa Pivec, senior director of Public Health, briefly outlined for tribal councilors goals in 2020.

The first goal, she said, is to “continue to inform you on the status of the Cherokee Nation’s health while still embracing the tribe’s role as the original stewards of public health.”

“That’s what makes us different at Cherokee Nation,” she said, adding that, “We have the freedom, the sovereignty to be a self-determined tribal public health department and find out what works for us, and we pledge to do that. We know that we have the responsibility to protect the health of our people that exists beyond just health care delivery, but also health in our communities.”

Another pledge is to “strive to make sure our services are well-coordinated,” Pivec said.

“We’ve done quite a bit of qualitative assessment in communities at this point, and we’re looking at what’s working and not working,” she said. “We want to keep trying again and again to hear the voice of the citizens that live in our communities because that is the reason that we exist. We want to make sure those voices are heard and incorporated into all the work that we do.”
About the Author
Chad Hunter has spent more than two decades in the newspaper industry as a reporter and editor in Arkansas, Oklahoma and his home state of Missouri. He began working for the Cherokee Phoenix in late  ...
chad-hunter@cherokee.org • 918-453-5269
Chad Hunter has spent more than two decades in the newspaper industry as a reporter and editor in Arkansas, Oklahoma and his home state of Missouri. He began working for the Cherokee Phoenix in late ...

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