COVID-19 Reaches Wind River, Tribes Issue "Stay-At-Home" Directive

Mar 24, 2020

Credit Wind River Family and Community Healthcare/Lisa Yawakia

With the first confirmed case of COVID-19 on the Wind River Reservation, tribal members are being asked not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary. There are currently 14 total confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Fremont County.

Chief Medical Officer of Wind River Family and Community Healthcare Paul Ebert said that Wind River's first case is related to the cluster of residents and staff of Showboat Retirement Center in Lander who have tested positive for COVID-19.

"As we investigate this case and hear more about the other cases in the county, we have good reason to believe that there are many more cases in the community," Ebert said, urging tribal members to avoid contact with others as much as possible.

The Northern Arapaho Tribe has confirmed that the patient is a 70-year-old Northern Arapaho woman who lives in Ethete.

Both the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Business Councils had asked their citizens separately only to leave their homes in cases of emergency or to buy essential supplies. On Monday, the tribes issued a joint directive to that effect.

"Everyone has seen the devastation in communities where COVID-19 has become prevalent. We must do everything we can to stop the spread of this illness and to protect our elders, children, and fellow Wind River Residents. Lives are at stake," The Inter-Tribal Council wrote.

Patient triage outside of the Fort Washakie IHS clinic
Credit Eastern Shoshone Tribe/Alejandra Silva

Both Wind River Family and Community Healthcare and the Wind River Service Unit in Fort Washakie have pared down regular operations to free up medical staff and equipment to combat COVID-19. Both facilities are asking patients to call ahead before coming to the clinic (307-332-7300 for the Fort Washakie clinic, 307-855-2966 for WRFCH) and have set up patient triage stations in their parking lots to limit exposure.

Speaking to Northern Arapaho tribal employees last week, Ebert said that the reservation could be "particularly at-risk" to an outbreak of COVID-19, in part because many tribal homes are multi-generational and, due to a housing shortage, some are overcrowded. A high rate of pre-existing illnesses such as asthma, heart disease and diabetes could also make the reservation vulnerable.

In an interview, Wind River Family and Community Healthcare CEO Richard Brannan said that the reservation's Indian Health Service-funded facilities were under resourced even before the pandemic. He said that staff at his clinic began rigorously preparing for COVID-19 a month before Wyoming saw its first case, in part because they did not expect the federal government to provide emergency assistance.

"You know, there isn't going to be a Lone Ranger riding up with a white hat and a white stallion saying 'I'm gonna save you' or whatever. We have to be prepared, given the limitations of our resources," Brannan said.

Of his facility's service population of around 11,000, Brannan estimated that 40 percent of his patients have no other form of health insurance, and therefore little flexibility to seek care outside of the Indian Health Service system.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at smaher4@uwyo.edu.