Wind River Tribes Enact Travel Restrictions, Prepare For The Coronavirus

Mar 12, 2020

Credit U.S. Centers For Disease Control

The Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone Tribes are preparing for a possible outbreak of the coronavirus on the Wind River Reservation.

Both tribes' Business Councils say they are working closely with federally-run clinics on the reservation and communicating with state and federal officials. There are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the Wind River Reservation.

In a resolution released on Wednesday afternoon, the Northern Arapaho Business Council declared a state of emergency, saying that the virus could threaten the safety and well-being of the tribe.

"Until further notice, the NABC authorizes and directs every tribal program director to implement their own coronavirus prevention and response plan without NABC approval," the resolution reads.

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.

Clinics In Emergency-Preparedness Mode

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. 

The Wind River Service Unit in Fort Washakie is operated by the federal Indian Health Service (IHS). The Wind River Cares clinics in Ethete, Arapahoe and Riverton are funded by IHS, but run by the Northern Arapaho Tribe under a 638 self-governance contract. CEO of Wind River Cares Richard Brannan said that arrangement has given his staff some flexibility to prepare for the outbreak by ordering extra supplies a month in advance and drawing up their own treatment protocols.

Credit Indian Health Service (IHS)

"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.

Brannan said that the federal government has a treaty responsibility to provide healthcare on reservations like Wind River, and called on IHS to release emergency funding and resources to reservation clinics and hospitals.

In a statement on Wednesday afternoon, IHS said that "all IHS facilities are capable of testing patients for COVID-19," and that testing would be available to patients free of charge. However, Brannan said that Wind River Cares has requested test kits from the federal government but not yet received them, and that his clinics do not currently have capacity to test for COVID-19. Officials at the Fort Washakie IHS clinic have not yet responded to an interview request about whether the clinic has the ability to test patients.

Wind River Cares' Director of Nursing Michaela Sisneros said the clinic's ability to treat the illness is currently limited.

"Right now we would just screen them through a triage process, ask them if they have a cough or fever, give them symptomatic care and tell them to stay home," Sisneros said.

But Brannan said that a housing crisis on the reservation, and resulting overcrowding in many tribal homes, could make home quarantine orders ineffective.

"In some instances, we have three or four families, 24 to 30 tribal members living in a three bedroom home, and that represents a significant problem in terms of isolating individuals," Brannan said, adding that some tribal members may not have the resources, such as access to reliable transportation, to get themselves to the doctor if they are sick.

According to Councilman John St. Clair, the Eastern Shoshone Business Council has been in communication with officials at the Fort Washakie IHS facility.

"[The meetings] have been encouraging. Even though they are short on resources and understaffed, they are making every effort to try to deal with this," he said.

Travel Restricted, Events Cancelled

Employees of both the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes are currently under travel restrictions enacted by the Business Councils. In a memo to employees on Wednesday, the Northern Arapaho Business Council said work-related travel should be limited to "essential" trips pre-approved by the council. Eastern Shoshone Tribal employees and elected officials were notified of a travel restriction on Thursday.

In an interview last week, while the Eastern Shoshone Business Council was still weighing whether to restrict travel, Councilman John St. Clair said the policy would be 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.

Several community events on the reservation, including an honoring dinner for Wyoming Indian High School's state champion basketball teams and an informational event about the 2020 census, have been cancelled to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

In a joint statement from Wind River Cares and the Northern Arapaho Business Council, tribal members were urged not to attend next weekend's Denver March Powwow or similar large gatherings. Hours later, Denver March and Gathering of Nations in New Mexico- two of the largest powwows in the country- were both cancelled.

Visitation at Morning Star Care Center, an elder care facility serving many tribal members in Fort Washakie, has been restricted to protect residents.

"We understand keeping in touch with your family members is important," the center wrote in a statement on Thursday morning. "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, tribes and tribal leaders throughout our region are implementing emergency plans. The Yankton Sioux Tribe in South Dakota has closed tribal offices for sanitization. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana have restricted work-related travel for employees. The Yankton and Oglala Sioux Tribes as well as the Navajo Nation have declared states of emergency on their respective reservations.

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.