With the first round of coronavirus testing completed on North Dakota’s Native American reservations, tribal leaders say they are ready for more.
Testing on May 21 at the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate was the last of six field operations in six weeks aimed at identifying the spread of COVID-19 among the state’s tribal populations. The series began April 11 with testing at the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara Nation.
“We’re very fortunate here that we’re focused on doing this together,” said Scott Davis, Executive Director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission. “This virus doesn’t respect state, county or tribal boundaries. It makes a huge difference for our state to be in collaboration with the tribes.”
North Dakota was among the states that avoided imposition of a statewide lock-down during the first wave of the pandemic. Instead, Governor Doug Burgum took a strong leadership role, communicating daily with the public and relying on science. He emphasized testing as the “gas pedal and steering wheel” to guide the state through uncharted waters. From the start, he included tribes.
“We want to be partners and respect your sovereignty,” Burgum told North Dakota tribal leaders. “We want to make sure we are working together wherever we can to protect all of your enrolled members. I want to make sure we have open lines of communication.”
As the state ramped-up its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Davis began coordinating weekly conference calls between Burgum and the state’s Tribal Leaders.
“We’ve been very strong on communication,” Davis said. “I hear daily about issues across Indian Country.”
During those calls, Burgum and key state agency department heads mostly listened as tribal leaders described their concerns about the virus. They discussed strategies to prevent it from spreading among a population with significant at-risk health disparities. Some of the phone meetings lasted from two-to-three hours.
When issuing emergency declarations in March, the tribe’s felt comfortable enough to go in with the state of North Dakota rather than accessing federal emergency assistance on their own.
Burgum’s commitment to help with testing, activated the considerable experience and resources of the North Dakota National Guard. The Guard and the North Dakota Department of Health became key players in helping tribal and county leaders organize testing events. The goal was to identify positive cases and establish a baseline for each tribe, isolate the individuals and quarantine those who were within close contact.
““We need strong relationships, at the state and county level, where the rubber meets the road,” said Davis. “I’ve been involved in tribal affairs for 11 years and this is a moment in time where you can see what the real relationships are between states and tribes.”
PARTNERSHIPS FOR TESTING
Each tribal testing event was a collaboration of multiple partners. Included were the state agencies, tribal leaders and the tribe’s incident command teams, local and county public health agencies, the Indian Health Service (IHS) and law enforcement agencies. The North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission (NDIAC) coordinated the planning.
The first was held at MHA’s Elbowoods Memorial Health Center in New Town, N.D., at the invitation of the tribe. The operational pattern continued using the “drive-through” method, debuted earlier at two non-tribal locations in the southwest part of the state. Information and samples were collected from a targeted group of 280 individuals while seated in their vehicles. It this case, it was the tribe’s health care doctors and nurses, emergency first responders, and essential administrative staff. The results showed that the virus was present on the reservation but in manageable numbers.
“I’m thankful for the state and their role in helping us test, and the conference calls with the Governor,” said Mark N. Fox, MHA Tribal Chairman, during a conference call meeting in mid-May.
Under Fox’s proactive leadership, and that of the MHA COVID-19 Task Force, the tribe later began testing on its own. Representatives of Abbott Labs visited and adjusted the testing units. Since the first event, the tribe is now approaching 1,000 individuals tested.
“As we continue testing, I’m very thankful that our numbers of positive cases have stayed in the same range over the past three-to-four weeks,” said Fox. “We all know that we haven’t defeated COVID but we’re thankful it hasn’t exploded more and the negative effects have not escalated to a point where we can’t control it.”
Testing results elsewhere on the state’s reservations followed a similar pattern. Events were held at the Spirit Lake Tribe on April 21, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa April 30, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe May 9, Trenton Indian Service Area May 20, and Sisseton-Wahpeton May 21.
Following initial testing, none of the tribes recorded more than a few positive cases among members in North Dakota. And no deaths from the virus were reported of tribal members while on any of the state’s reservations.
“The importance of testing is finding people and getting them isolated to avoid the spread,” said Mike Faith, Standing Rock Tribal Chairman. “If there’s community spread within the reservation, you’re definitely going to have national news. So, Governor, I take my hat off to your health people and the National Guard for the awesome job they’ve done for us.”
The benefits of inclusion have also helped the tribes restock all important medical supplies and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Being one of the few states with a well-stocked state medical cache, the tribes have received 14 deliveries from the North Dakota Medical Cache in Bismarck. Driving state vehicles, two NDIAC staff members made long trips across the state with boxes of masks, gowns, gloves, face shields and hand sanitizer.
For his part, Burgum was interested in knowing whether tribal leaders had seen examples of best practices in Indian Country that North Dakota might follow or role model relationships between other states and tribes.
“I’m hearing that tribes [elsewhere] are looking to the tribes of North Dakota,” said Chairman Faith of Standing Rock. “They’re saying, ‘how did you do this?’”
Faith continued: “I would say this to them, be not afraid; work with your local governments. It can only benefit your people if you’re working together.”
“Take that chance,” Faith added. “Work together. It’s pretty much been a lifesaver.”