TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — The Cherokee Nation has administered more than 270,000 COVID-19 tests and implemented several public health safety measures in the past two years as this week marks the two-year anniversary of the tribe’s first positive COVID-19 case within its tribal health care system.
Cherokee Nation’s public health team, which is nationally certified by the Public Health Accreditation Board, did outreach to those more than 200,000 patients, completing 30,000 case investigations on positive cases and contacting another 16,000 people who were in close contact with others who tested positive.
“This undoubtedly is the worst public health crisis in generations and decisions were made within the Cherokee Nation from the guidance of our experts, which includes our public health team,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “They have continued to monitor global, national and state trends and keep us advised, as well as keep our citizens informed every step of the way with their contact tracing efforts. It was an enormous undertaking for this department, but will have saved thousands of lives.”
Since March 2020, the Cherokee Nation had 42,265 Cherokee citizens or other Native patients who use the Cherokee Nation health system test positive for COVID-19 resulting in 186 deaths from the virus, more than 70 were fluent Cherokee Speakers.
The Public Health contact tracing check-ins included daily phone calls and reviewing responses from surveys that included questions about how someone was feeling and if they were staying home and isolating from others. Public Health was also able to walk through with patients when symptoms and signs might be more serious and encourage seeking emergency services assistance.
Public Health has close to 150 employees, many whom during the pandemic halted their regular duties to act as contact tracers, case investigators and assisted in delivering COVID supplies to schools.
“The employees in Cherokee Nation Public Health were and still are key components in bringing awareness to the dangers of COVID-19 and the issues the virus has brought on,” Cherokee Nation Deputy Principal Chief Bryan Warner said. “I’m extremely grateful and applaud their ability to help fellow Cherokees in such a monumental time in history.”
Some of Cherokee Nation’s Public Health efforts include, transforming certain programs to align with COVID safety protocols, following trends of the virus, giving recommendations in order to stop the spread of the virus and helping the efforts of case investigations, contact tracing and aiding with calls on the tribe’s COVID-19 hotline which was established in the wake of the pandemic.
Public Health made rapid changes like moving the Wings Fitness Program to virtual races and implementing masking and social distancing at the Male Seminary Recreation Center gym in order to help Cherokee citizens continue with physical health during the past two years.
Cherokee Nation Public Health Educators, Kasey Dirteater-Elliott and Shaina Kindle, both helped in the COVID response by doing case investigations, contact tracing and helped registration at community vaccine events. Their normal work duties include tasks like assisting in schools, teaching prevention classes and hosting community events such as walking groups or Wings races. When COVID hit, their duties quickly changed to helping the virus efforts.
“Although the duties were much different than my typical work day, I felt like I was contributing to a much larger issue at hand,” Dirteater-Elliott said. “Being there for my community is what is most important to me as a Public Health Educator for Cherokee Nation.”
Shaina Kindle said her work transition wasn’t easy, but her time contacting fellow Cherokee citizens helped the transformation. Employees worked weekends and late into the evenings making calls to check on citizens.
“It wasn’t just me that was having to change everything,” Kindle said. “It was all of us. We were all trying to figure out and navigate this new experience together. One thing that is for sure, is that I could not have asked to be part of a better team during these past two years.”
Chief Hoskin also issued a mask mandate in May 2020, and the tribe implemented weekly COVID testing for students at Sequoyah Schools, and more recently tribal government employees as another safety measure.
Other Cherokee Nation departments like Career Services, Education and Health Services provided employees to assist in answering the COVID-19 hotline.
The Cherokee Nation also administered more than 100,000 vaccines to tribal citizens and the community, helped issue more than 14 million meals to more than 300,000 citizens and offered many programs and services directly to Cherokee Nation citizens to help recover from COVID-19.
“Our team here at Public Health has diligently continued to work these past couple of years to ensure the safety of Cherokee citizens and fellow co-workers,” Cherokee Nation Public Health Medical Director Dr. David Gahn said. “I’m thankful and proud of their skill, dedication, long work hours, ability to adapt to new work environments and determination to help confront this virus.”