For the past year, Cherokee Nation’s health care workers, first responders and other essential service providers for the health and well-being of our people have been taking heroic measures to treat and protect Cherokees during the global pandemic. Unfortunately, they are now facing a new crisis. Across the world and in our own backyard, we are witnessing a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
In the past week, Cherokee Nation saw more than 600 new positive COVID-19 cases within our tribal health system. The vast majority (about 90%) of these cases are occurring among the unvaccinated, and most are from the more contagious Delta variant. That spike represents an increase of more than 80% from the previous week and the tribe’s highest number in the past eight months.
The suffering and lost lives from this new wave of the pandemic are especially tragic because we know that vaccines are widely available, safe and effective protection against Delta and all known strains of the virus. Oklahoma’s population is still only about 45% vaccinated, and that is far too low. To protect our Cherokee communities, we must get vaccinated and encourage our family, friends and neighbors to do the same.
To cope with the rising number of COVID-19 patients, we have suspended elective surgeries. We also reactivated the COVID-19 surge plan for W.W. Hastings Hospital, which will increase in-patient room capacity by approximately 50%. As long as this surge lasts, our health system has had to redirect health care staff from other health centers to the W.W. Hastings Hospital to assist in caring for COVID-19 patients.
The Cherokee Nation Health Services and Public Health teams are working around the clock to address this situation. Not only is the COVID-19 surge putting added pressures and risks on our health care professionals, but it is once again jeopardizing the overall well-being of our tribal nation and the most vulnerable among us. While our Cherokee elders were at greatest risk from the first wave of COVID-19, this new wave poses greater risk for people of all ages.
This virus has proven to be unpredictable, but Cherokee Nation has the staff and vaccines to help stop this variant and keep our citizens safe. Vaccines are free for anyone age 12 or older who wants one. The vaccines are safe, effective and backed by years of scientific research and development. Each of our Cherokee Nation Health Center locations is able to provide a vaccine to patients regardless of tribal citizenship or residency. No appointment is needed but can be scheduled by calling 1-539-234-4099.
Studies have shown that children and adults under 50 are 2.5 times more likely to become infected by the Delta variant. 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.
Fortunately, 70% of Cherokee Nation employees have been vaccinated. At our government and Cherokee Nation Businesses, we offered a $300 incentive for employees to get vaccinated. We believe safety comes first, and nothing can drive down this latest wave more quickly than a renewed effort to get vaccinations out across our reservation. Cherokee Nation employees also continue to rely on masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 at government buildings, business entities and health center facilities.
We all have a role to play as we combat this new surge in the global pandemic. Truly, the opportunity to reduce COVID related death and misery for all of us is in the hands of each of us. I know that by taking the vaccine, following the CDC’s guidelines and being vigilant in wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, keeping good hygiene habits and staying home if you feel unwell, we can, together, overcome this latest variant of the pandemic.
Chuck Hoskin Jr.