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Northern Arapaho Clinic Conducts Over 20 Percent Of COVID-19 Testing In Wyoming

Wind River Family and Community Healthcare/Lisa Yawakia

COVID-19 testing resources remain limited around Wyoming and the country. But one clinic that's operated by the Northern Arapaho Tribe has emerged as a leader in the state when it comes to testing.

Wind River Family and Community Healthcare (WRFCH,) which is funded by the federal Indian Health Service and run by the tribe under a self-determination contract, has tested around 1,400 people. That's more than 20 percent of the 6,328 tests that have been conducted in Wyoming by Thursday, April 16.

The Wyoming Department of Health Laboratory is currently only processing tests from individuals that fall within the department's priority categories, including those over the age of 65 and other high-risk patients who are showing symptoms.

Dr. Paul Ebbert, Chief Medical Officer of WRFCH, said the clinic is testing through a private lab. Since early April, it has offered drive-through testing at its Ethete and Arapahoe locations to any member of a federally recognized tribe who wants one.

"The reason we're able to do this is because early on, we decided that we wanted to do mass testing so we ordered the supplies we needed to do that," Ebbert said.

According to the clinic's CEO Richard Brannan, WRFCH's team began drafting a preparedness plan and ordering supplies in late February. The clinic has also tested several non-Native tribal employees and first responders who work on the Wind River Reservation.

During a press briefing last week, Fremont County Public Health Officer Dr. Brian Gee said that private tests could yield more false-negative results than those being processed by the state.

"The downside would be the potential accuracy of [private tests,]" Gee said. "So just to have a test, it seems good, but also we have to figure out what that test really means."

But according to Ebbert, WRFCH's is taking a calculated risk.

"We also do not know what the false negative rate of the state test is," Ebbert said. "We have done our research, we suspect that the way we're testing is a little bit less sensitive than the state test is, although we do not know. Nobody knows."

And he feels the clinic's more aggressive approach is paying off.

"We have found three or four asymptomatic cases that would not have been found otherwise. And by doing that, we are able to quarantine those people and do contact tracing " Ebbert said, adding that the Northern Arapaho Tribe is offering quarantine housing to those who test positive at its Wind River Hotel.

"And a couple of those people were in situations where they could have been super-spreaders, where they either worked in a local store or were going from house to house because of their housing situation," Ebbert said.

The not-for-profit clinic has received some federal relief funding through the CARES Act, which set aside more than $1 billion for the Indian Health Service network. But Ebbert said WRFCH is footing the bill for private testing, and isn't seeing much revenue since paring down its regular operations to combat COVID-19.

"We hope that we're going to be okay [financially], but we honestly don't know," Ebbert said. "[LabCorp] has given us what I feel is a reasonable price for the tests, but it could add up to a lot of money."

Ebbert said the clinic and the tribe made a decision to invest in widespread testing, which they hope will protect tribal members and save money down the road.

WRFCH will continue to offer drive-through testing to tribal members Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. at its Ethete Clinic, and from 10am until noon and 1 p.m. until 3 p.m. at its Arapahoe Clinic. 

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

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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