‘Innovative changes’ help tribal health care address COVID-19
Adair County Health Department registered nurse Amanda Elfezzazi prepares a coronavirus test at Stilwell Memorial Hospital for a drive-through testing event on April 3 as fellow nurse Tamarkia Fisher looks on. The goal was to administer at least 60 tests in a four-hour span. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH – The Cherokee Nation has adapted to the coronavirus threat with updated health screening protocols and a push for quicker testing.
In online addresses to CN citizens on April 3 and April 8, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. laid out the tribe’s new screening procedures and touched on an agreement for rapid-response COVID-19 tests.
Recently, CN Health Services moved its pre-screening process at W.W. Hastings Hospital outdoors underneath tents “to decrease potential exposure” for emergency and urgent care patients, according to the tribe.
“We’re using new check-in procedures all designed to keep patients and staff as safe as possible,” Hoskin said, adding that “innovative changes” within the tribe were helping address the virus. “The department’s testing out safer options to do initial screening of patients from our health center parking lots, and contain any patients with fever.”
As of April 8, there were 28 confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the CN’s health system. Quicker testing methods and additional ventilators were on the way, Hoskin said.
“This past weekend, I signed an agreement with Abbott Laboratories,” he said on April 8. “It’ll bring rapid response COVID-19 tests to the Cherokee Nation health system. This means quicker tests, as little as a few minutes, for those whose health conditions warrant it. It also means we can act quicker to protect those infected with coronavirus and the community, as well. Not only do we have more ventilators in route to the Cherokee Nation, we’re also reaching out around the globe for new ideas to expand options to care for COVID-19 patients.”
Internally and with “expertise from Italy,” tribal and health leaders recently used a 3-D printer and diving gear to create a new Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure, or BiPAP, machine, typically used for sleep apnea.
“These new machines are being tested this week,” Hoskin said. “They could prove to be life-saving equipment at our hospital.”
Other changes within the CN’s health system include drive-through testing sites in Vinita and expansion of telemedicine with health care providers.
In March, Oklahoma’s first coronavirus-related death was named as CN citizen Merle Dry, 55, of Berryhill. On April 6, the CN announced that Karen Ketcher, the tribe’s Self-Governance director, died due to complications related to COVID-19.
Hoskin braced tribal citizens for more difficult times ahead.
“According to every indicator, the next few weeks will be the most difficult and painful we’ve had in this crisis,” he said on April 8. “The number of positive tests will increase. The number of our friends and neighbors across Cherokee Nation suffering due to this virus will increase. The number of deaths – people you love, people I love, fellow Cherokees across our nation – will increase.”
By April 8, a total of 79 Oklahomans had died and at least 1,524 had tested positive for the virus, according to the state Department of Health.
COVID-19 cases reported within the six full and eight partial counties that comprise the CN jurisdiction was closing in on 550 as of April 8, while the number of related deaths hit 30.
In Cherokee County, the state health department reported 16 cases and one death related to coronavirus. Residents in Tahlequah were ordered by the mayor to shelter in place, unless for “essential activities,” and adhere to a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. public curfew.
Adair County reported 25 cases and two deaths as of April 8. Stilwell, the county seat, imposed similar measures to Tahlequah, asking residents to comply with social distancing.
Hoskin’s advice for all CN citizens is “to stay home and stay safe.”
“It’s been a hard transition for all of us,” he said. “As Cherokees, it’s in our nature to roll up our sleeves, jump in and help during a crisis. For almost all of us, we’ve had to do the opposite. We’ve had to help most by staying at home.”
The CN has established a COVID-19 call center at 1-833-528-0063. There is a specific hotline for Cherokee speakers who have health questions or need essential items at 1-539-234-4040. A list of health centers is available at https://health.cherokee.org/contact-us