Wind River Tribes Declare States Of Emergency, Prepare For COVID-19

Mar 18, 2020

Credit Savannah Maher

With eight confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Fremont County, the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone Tribes are preparing for the coronavirus to reach the Wind River Reservation.

Both tribes' Business Councils have declared states of emergency. For the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, that means nearly all tribal offices are closed to the public, and tribal employees who are immunocompromised or aged 65 and older have been sent home with pay for the rest of the month. The Northern Arapaho Tribe has taken the same measures, and formed a Coronavirus Task Force to coordinate prevention, monitoring and treatment of the disease.

"Like most governments around the world, the [U.S.] federal government was completely unprepared for a crisis of this magnitude. We do not want to make the same mistake, so we are working very closely with Governor Gordon's Administration […] to come up with proactive measures to address this matter," Northern Arapaho Business Council Chairman Lee Spoonhunter wrote in a letter to the community.

Both Business Councils have advised tribal members and employees to follow Centers For Disease Control guidelines for preventing the spread of the virus, including washing their hands frequently, avoiding contact with people who are sick, and staying home if they are sick.

IHS Clinics Bracing For Impact

Tribal leaders estimate that the majority of tribal members living or or near the Wind River Reservation rely  on federally-run clinics for their healthcare needs and that many do not have another form of health insurance. 

Credit Wikimedia commons

The Wind River Service Unit in Fort Washakie is operated by the federal Indian Health Service (IHS). Wind River Family and Community Healthcare (WRFCH), which operates clinics in Ethete, Arapahoe and Riverton, is funded by IHS but run by the Northern Arapaho Tribe under a self-governance contract.

CEO of WRFCH Richard Brannan said that arrangement gave his staff the flexibility to start preparing over a month before the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Wyoming.

"We've taken the matter into our own hands. Because of the lack of response by the federal government, we've developed our own plans here in terms of triaging patients, taking care of them and minimizing the spread. We figure there isn't anybody going to come in here and take care of us, so we have to be prepared," Brannan said

The Indian Health Service has stated that all of its facilities across the country have the ability to test for the disease. Speaking to Northern Arapaho tribal employees on Monday, WRFCH Chief Medical Officer Paul Ebert said his clinic was "down to about 15 tests" for a service population of 11,000.

"Despite what you're seeing on TV and what the feds are saying, we still do not have widespread testing," Ebert said. "We would like to test everybody that wants to be tested, we would like to test everybody that we want to be tested, but right now, we have to pick and choose."

According to the Eastern Shoshone Business Council, the Wind River Service Unit in Fort Washakie had 19 test kits available on Wednesday afternoon.

Both facilities have asked patients showing symptoms of COVID-19 to call ahead (307-332-7300 for the Fort Washakie clinic, 307-855-2966 for WRFCH), and have developed systems for triaging those patients in their parking lots. They have also suspended certain routine and non-urgent care.

Travel Restricted, Tribal Offices Closed

Employees of both the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes are currently under travel restrictions enacted by the Business Councils. In an interview, Eastern Shoshone Business Councilman John St. Clair said that measure is intended to protect elders and the immunocompromised.

"It's not only for [the employees] safety, but for the safety of the tribe in case something is brought back here," St. Clair said.

All of the reservation's school districts, and other Fremont County districts that serve tribal children, are closed at least until the end of March in order to prevent the spread of the disease. Students in the Arapahoe and Fort Washakie school districts will have lunches delivered to their homes on weekdays during the school closure. "Grab-and-go" meals will be available to all students in the Wyoming Indian School District from 11:00am to 1:00pm on weekdays at the high school.

Nearly all tribal buildings and offices have closed their doors to the public, although many are continuing business as usual from home. Several community events, including our region's two largest powwows, have been cancelled. Tribal recreation and meeting spaces, including Rocky Mountain Hall, Blue Sky Hall, and Great Plains Hall are currently closed to the public.

Visitation at elder-care facilities on the reservation has been restricted to protect residents.

"We understand keeping in touch with your family members is important," the Morning Star Care Center in Fort Washakie wrote in a statement. "Please consider using telephone calls, email, text, Skype or other social media. We will continually monitor this restriction and keep in contact with families for when we can allow visitors."

Meanwhile, other tribes in our region are already responding to their first cases of COVID-19. The Oglala Sioux Tribe declared a state of emergency after an IHS patient in Charles Mix County, South Dakota contracted the disease. The Navajo Nation confirmed on Tuesday that two of its tribal citizens have tested positive. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has since issued an executive order closing the nation to visitors. There are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the Wind River Reservation.

In a statement Wednesday, the Northern Arapaho Business Council along with the tribe's ceremonial elders declared a day of prayer for the reservation.

"Please pray for our health, protection, strength, and for guidance as we all work together to combat the spread of Coronavirus in our community," the council wrote. "This is not a time to panic, but this is a time to take all precautions to protect our community. We are Arapaho and our traditional way of life will protect us as we help ourselves."

This post will be updated as more information becomes available. Visit the CDC's website for information on COVID-19 and how not to spread it.

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