Story at a glance
- Cherokee health officials have installed robust public health practices to quell coronavirus transmission.
- Recent data observe a decline in daily new cases being reported — a stark contrast from the rest of the country.
With new COVID-19 cases jumping across almost every U.S. state and territory, little progress has been made beating back the virus in the country. Instead, multiple states are hitting new record highs and seeing corresponding increases in hospitalizations and deaths, both signs of severe illnesses.
One community within the U.S., however, appears to be faring better than its surrounding regions: the Cherokee Nation.
Despite having been earlier regarded as a particularly vulnerable community to severe coronavirus outbreaks — given the prominence of multigenerational housing and a lack of infrastructure for testing and contact tracing stemming from economic disparities — recent data from Cherokee Nation territories are hopeful.
Like most of the country, Cherokee Nation health officials recorded a record-breaking surge of new daily cases in early November, counting 176 infections on Nov. 9 alone.
So far, nine days later, health officials have managed to suppress that number to just 14 daily new cases. This amounts to a small 1.16 percent increase in daily new cases. The rest of Oklahoma, by contrast, showcases a 1.9 percent increase in day-over-day cases.
COVID-19 can have severe health ramifications on anyone, but national data have long revealed that American Indian and Alaska Natives are disproportionately negatively affected by the virus. Regardless, the Cherokee Nation has uniquely quelled the COVID-19 spread within their community.
Speaking to STAT News, Cherokee health officials credit their success to simply following the science. Implementing measures such as stockpiling ample personal protective equipment (PPE), ensuring access to food, specializing in protecting tribal elders from the virus and disseminating health resources in both English and the Cherokee language are just some of the measures taken to keep people aware of public health protocols.
“It’s dire, but what in the world would it look like if we weren’t doing this work?” Lisa Pivec, the senior director of public health for Cherokee Nation Health Services, told STAT. As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Pivec reportedly helped lead the indigenous nation to abide by recommended COVID-19 mitigation measures, including drive-through testing clinics offered Monday through Friday and a universal mask mandate.
Public health experts, including Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said that if the broader U.S. adopted similar measures, the pandemic scenarios would be “doing so much better.”
“It’s very impressive. It’s a reminder of how much leadership matters and how even under difficult circumstances, with limited resources, you can make a huge difference,” he said.
To continue access to rapid testing, the Cherokee Nation was recently awarded a $4.1 million Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics for Underserved Populations grant on behalf of the Native American Research Centers for Health and the National Institutes of Health.
The funding will go toward supporting contact tracing and testing efforts in the Cherokee community.
“From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cherokee Nation has implemented our response by relying on medical science, facts and compassion. Because of this, our approach to slowing and stopping the spread of COVID-19 in our communities has been at the forefront of governmental and health care response not just in Oklahoma, but in all of Indian Country,” Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. commented.
Together, Pivec and Hoskin Jr. have worked to ensure a plethora of PPE is available for tribal members, and have enforced strict mask-wearing protocols since the spring.
“I hope our response as a nation demonstrates what being in a tribe means,” Pivec told reporters. “It’s collectively caring for one another.”