A year later, Cherokee Nation still grappling with COVID-19

A Cherokee Nation Health Services worker on Feb. 24 helps a patient get ready to be tested for COVID-19 at the CN Hoffice located at 402 W. Locust St. in Stilwell. A year after the virus hit Oklahoma and the CN, the tribe is still fighting it. 

TAHLEQUAH – It’s been a year since the first of nearly 15,000 COVID-19 cases was confirmed within the Cherokee Nation’s health system, but in February 2020, the tribe was already preparing for a pandemic.

“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 at the time.

As of March 9 this year, the tribe had confirmed 14,844 COVID-19 cases and 100 related deaths within its health system. An estimated 260 cases remained active.

“We really suffered greatly in December and January and into February,” Gahn said. “Our hospital services were overwhelmed like they were in the state, but we managed extremely well.”

A year ago, the tribe stepped up its sanitation measures and encouraged masks in an effort to slow the virus’s spread. CN citizens, especially elders, were asked to stay home and away from crowds if possible.

“If you’ll remember back in early March (2020), there was not a great deal of guidance from the national level,” Lisa Pivec, Public Health senior director, told leaders during a six-month pandemic update.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization deemed the coronavirus a pandemic. Shortly after, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. declared a state of emergency in response to the fast-spreading virus, which he later described as the “worst crisis of our generation.”

“This is no time for widespread panic,” he told citizens, “but it is also no time to go about our daily normal lives.”

The tribe’s first confirmed coronavirus patient was announced on March 24, 2020, a day after all CN employees deemed non-essential were sent home on paid status.

As the virus worsened, the CN leaned on Centers for Disease Control guidelines and other pandemic restrictions, enacting a mask mandate at tribal properties. Other than for administrative leave, Pivec said “every bit of public health staff worked through” the imminent closures that affected travel, schools, casinos, museums and events.

CN citizens adapted to social distancing and life on lockdown while the tribe pushed for what was ultimately hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid. With help from those funds, students were offered benefits to purchase technology needed for distance learning. The tribe also provided emergency food for the elderly and disabled, an effort that only gained momentum throughout the year.

“As the COVID-19 virus makes its way to the Cherokee Nation, it is our top priority to ensure our citizens are taken care of, especially the more vulnerable population,” Hoskin said in April, a month that saw the CN’s first COVID-related employee death.

The federal funding helped support the tribe’s official COVID response program, called Respond, Recover & Rebuild.

“We’ve operated at a high level during this crisis,” Hoskin said in June. “I think there’s a lot of businesses, a lot of governments that weren’t able to do that. We were able to do it because, I think, for a long time we’ve made prudent decisions with the resources that we have had.”

To combat COVID-19, the CN adopted what it called a “box it in” strategy, Pivec said.

“The strategy is pretty simple,” she added. “It’s test widely, isolate all infected people, find everyone who that person was in contact with and quarantine them for 14 days.”

Pivec said much time has been spent tracking the virus, an effort that began with the tribe’s first confirmed patient.

“The biggest consumption of our time now is case investigation and contact tracing,” she said this past fall.

In addition to investigations into the confirmed COVID-19 cases, health staff followed up with another 10,300-plus people who were in contact with COVID patients. Also over the past year, health staff produced data reports on a daily and weekly basis; managed five COVID-specific cooperative funding agreements from federal agencies; assisted with food distribution efforts and screening at the Tribal Complex; prepared guidance materials for schools and workplaces; and fielded more than 20,000 COVID-19 hotline calls.

Gahn said that “things are improving” both nationally and in Oklahoma in regards to COVID-19.

“In the United States, the numbers have gone down tremendously since the beginning of January,” he said. “We’ve kind of hit a plateau in the U.S. at about 70,000 cases per day. We’re averaging still over 2,000 deaths a day in the United States.”

The CN’s continued COVID precautions and vaccination efforts are helping keep citizens safe, according to the doctor.

“This layered effect of all these mitigation efforts we have to reduce the spread of the virus is hugely important,” Gahn said. “Cherokee Nation has been held up as a model for vaccine distribution. It’s really amazing the amount of effort it takes to do this well. Cherokee Nation Health Services has done that and should be very proud of that.”