TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Cherokee Nation Health Services is seeing a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations, with 90 percent of new COVID cases occurring among unvaccinated patients. Just last week, 600 new cases were reported in the tribal health system, the highest number recorded since January of 2021 and an increase of more than 80 percent compared to the prior week’s cases.
In order to care for the rising number of COVID patients requiring hospitalization, Cherokee Nation is temporarily suspending elective surgeries and re-activating its COVID-19 surge plan for W.W. Hastings Hospital, which will increase in-patient room capacity by approximately 50 percent.
“The current swell in COVID-19 cases and related hospitalizations is driven by the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus according to our Cherokee Nation Health Services and Public Health teams, both of which are working around the clock to address this situation,” said Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “The Delta variant accounts for over 80 percent of the tribe’s new COVID cases. A continued increase in cases could mean our health system is required to redirect health care staff from outlying health centers to assist in caring for hospitalized COVID patients at W.W. Hastings Hospital. Not only is COVID-19 putting added pressures and risks on our hospital, health centers and our amazing health care team tasked with treating COVID patients, but the resurgence once again threatens the overall well-being of the Cherokee Nation and the most vulnerable among us, including our Cherokee elders. We must commit ourselves to following medical science, facts, and compassion as we respond to the surge and do everything within our power to protect our Cherokee communities.”
The Delta variant is now the dominant strain of COVID in the U.S. after first being diagnosed in the country in March, and is highly contagious. For example, in an environment where no one is vaccinated or wearing a mask, the average person infected with the original strain would infect 2.5 people, but with the Delta variant in the same environment, that one person would infect up to four people.
Studies have shown that children and adults under 50 are 2.5 times more likely to become infected by the Delta variant.
“In a surge, we utilize beds in the hospital that are not traditionally used for critical care and convert those into Intensive Care Unit beds. This is good for increasing the level of care for those who are critically ill; however, this also impacts services for patients who need non-COVID related treatment,” said Cherokee Nation Health Services Executive Director Dr. R. Stephen Jones.
The rising number of COVID-19 cases throughout the state and in neighboring regions also played a role in the re-activation of the tribal health system’s surge plan and temporary suspension of elective surgery.
“Transferring patients has become difficult due to little capacity in hospitals across the region,” said Cherokee Nation Health Services Executive Medical Director Dr. Roger Montgomery. “After the surge in December 2020, this is the last thing that we wanted. Re-activating the surge plan and temporarily suspending elective surgery will help save lives by ensuring that critical care efforts are maximized – but vaccination is our best weapon against this virus.”
COVID-19 vaccinations are available at all Cherokee Nation health center locations for anyone, regardless of tribal citizenship or residency, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday excluding holidays. Walk-ins are welcome, or appointments can be scheduled by calling 1-539-234-4099.
Cherokee Nation Health Services recently reached a milestone of fully vaccinating 70 percent of active Cherokee Nation government employees for the COVID-19 virus, a rate nearly twice that of counties in Oklahoma. Since December 2020, more than 65,000 vaccines have been administered through the Cherokee Nation health system.
Cherokee Nation employees continue to rely on masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 at government buildings, business entities and health center facilities.