The Novel Coronavirus Has Made It’s Way To Indian Country

With the number of confirmed cases climbing hourly, domestic and international public health experts are learning more about the virus daily, including more about the contagion rate and who is at higher risk. As of press time, elders and people with a pre-existing condition, including diabetes, asthma, or hypertension, are considered to be at an elevated risk.


Common symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath, and fever. They can appear anywhere from two to 14 days after initial exposure. Emergency warning signs include persistent chest pain, difficulty breathing, confusion, and bluish lips or face due to lack of oxygen.


There are fewer confirmed COVID-19 fatalities among children. However, they are not immune from the virus and can be asymptomatic carriers. According to a March 2020 study of more than 2,100 Chinese children published by the medical journal Pediatrics, only 5 percent of the cases were severe.


With no vaccine available, people are urged to keep their distance from each other and stay home if they experience any flu-like symptoms. The virus is spread via physical contact and droplets that become airborne via sneezes and coughs from someone who is infected.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommend frequently sanitizing surfaces that are touched regularly, such countertops, doorknobs, cell phones, and keyboards. People are also strongly urged to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds after using the bathroom, touching one’s face or sneezing. If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer that is at least 60 percent alcohol.


Despite rumors circulating on social media, the Department of Defense confirmed on March 19 that there are no plans for en masse domestic deployment of the National Guard to enforce a national quarantine. Guard units have been activated in 27 states to help with response efforts, but those tasks have ranged from distributing food to helping collect test samples at drive-through swabbing sites.


As of March 19, Oklahoma’s National Guard has not been called up, although Gov. Kevin Stitt acknowledged at a press conference the day before that his office had made contact in case their assistance is needed in setting up additional ICU beds to accommodate the growing number of cases.


Oklahoma’s first COVID-19 casualty, the Rev. Merle Dry, was a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. The Tulsa native died March 18, just one day after testing positive for the virus.


As of press time, four cases in the Indian Health Services system have been confirmed: one in the Portland service area, one in the Great Plains service area, and two in the Navajo service area.


“More cases are likely to be identified in coming days,” IHS Chief Medical Director Dr. Michael Toedt said. “While any direct impacts to Indian Country are not yet known, we must be vigilant to protect.”


Indian Health Services facilities are capable of administering COVID-19 tests on site. However, as is also the case with mainstream providers, there is a shortage of testing supplies and preventative equipment.


As part of a national response package, Congress allocated a $40 million supplemental appropriation to IHS specifically for coronavirus efforts. On March 17, officials with IHS confirmed that listening sessions are underway with tribal officials to figure out how to divide the funds among IHS, tribal and urban facilities.


“One of the questions that we’re working with the CDC on is how to allocate that money as we recognize the significant challenges that they (urban Indian health facilities) face as well,” IHS Office of Finance and Accounting Director Jillian Curtis said. “Urban Indian organizations are top of mind for us and we’re working to identify resources for them now.”

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