Northern Arapaho Tribe Loses Fifth Member To COVID-19

May 18, 2020

 

Credit Savannah Maher

Late Saturday night, the state Department of Health announced that a Fremont County woman was the eighth Wyoming resident to die after testing positive for COVID-19. The Northern Arapaho Business Council has confirmed that the woman was a tribal member.

"We are reminded of the great love we have for our Arapaho people," Chairman Lee Spoonhunter wrote in a statement. "The [Northern Arapaho Business Council] is committed to its continued actions to help fight against this pandemic. It is imperative we work together to protect ourselves and others. Our beloved tribal member's memory will live on."

The Business Council has not identified the woman, but the state Department of Health says she was older and suffered from pre-existing health conditions that put her at high-risk.

Five of the state's eight confirmed COVID-19 related deaths have now been among members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe. More than 30 percent of confirmed cases of the illness have been among self-identified Native people, who make up less than 3 percent of Wyoming's population.

This is in part due to an aggressive testing program by Wind River Family and Community Healthcare, a clinic operated by the Northern Arapaho Tribe. That program offers testing to any tribal member who wants it and has identified at least 80 cases.

"Over half of our cases are people who are asymptomatic," Dr. Paul Ebbert, the clinic's Chief Medical Officer, said in an interview with Wyoming Public Media earlier this month. "These are people who would not have been tested in the county or other parts of the state."

But Ebbert said other risk factors are also playing a role in the high rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths among Native people. Tribal leaders say chronic underfunding of the federal Indian Health Service has led to high rates of illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, which put tribal members at high risk for the most serious complications of COVID-19. Overcrowding in many tribal homes could also allow the virus to move quickly between family members.

As the rest of Wyoming begins to ease restrictions meant to slow the spread of COVID-19, the Wind River Reservation remains under a strict stay-at-home order and nightly curfew. Tribal leaders hope these measures will prevent more infections and deaths.

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