PHOTO/RENO-SPARKS INDIAN COLONY: A patient receives a COVID-19 shot at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Tribal Health Center. The tribe is dispensing about 80 shots per day.

A year ago, as the COVID-19 contagion spread across the country like a swift, rolling storm and Americans hunkered down, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony prepared for a battle.

“We started our Facebook Live updates weekly inMarch, just after Gov. Steve Sisolak made the emergency declaration,” said Bethany Sam, public information officer for the colony. “We wanted to encourage everyone to stay safe and let them know that Reno-Sparks Indian Colony cares.”

Over the last year, the tribe has continued a campaign of constant communication with its 1,183 enrolled members and more than 4,000 urban Indians who depend on the Reno-Sparks Tribal Health Center. Businesses closed, including tribal offices, and a curfew was imposed. Roadblocks were set up at the colony and at  Hungry Valley north of the Truckee Meadows. Emergency services were activated and new programs were set up to serve the needs of a small community thrust into a crisis whose end no one could see.

Impact on Indian country

Chairman Arlan D. Melendez and the Tribal Council knew that Indian people would be especially vulnerable to the contagion.

“COVID’s impact on us as Indian people is a big issue,” Melendez told tribal members in an update, as he urged people to get the vaccine. “A lot of us have underlying health conditions and we’re more at risk. We really have to make this work with our own families.”

The tribal clinic has been getting up to 200 doses of vaccine per week and getting them into patients’ arms as fast as possible, Sam said. As of March 11, more than 1,200 vaccines had been administered, starting with people 80 and older and working down through age tiers. Emergency response and essential workers and people with underlying conditions also got the shots.

Vaccinations accelerate

As sovereign nations, tribes may adjust vaccine distribution plans based on changing conditions. On March 15, the tribe will open up vaccine appointments to all Tribal Health Center patients older than 18. “We’ve had pretty good success,” Sam said. “We’re moving pretty fast, but when we see the size of our patient population we always try to do better.”

There is some vaccine hesitancy among Indian people for the same reasons it exists among the general population.

“A lot of our tribal members want to be vaccinated,” Sam said. “And there are some who are afraid or don’t want to get it because of what they’ve been reading on social media and all those other places where people are skeptical.”

Tribal communities vulnerable

In addition, she said, “historical trauma” plays a role in trusting the vaccine. Tribes have not only been decimated by diseases brought by white settlers, including smallpox and measles, but American Indians often are wary of the federal government’s motives when it comes to things that affect their lives.

Yet, the realities of living in small, tight-knit communities make it even more urgent for tribal members to be vaccinated and to observe the COVID-19 precautions. “Many of our members live in multi-generational homes,” Sam noted. “Your family, your cousins, live just down the street, so it’s easy for people to gather. People work or go to school outside the community and come home. There are multiple avenues for the virus to spread.

“We worked really hard to mitigate that. We’ve come up with ways to keep our people at home.”

Losing elders to contagion

The colony has had five tribal members die of complications of COVID-19, with two more deaths among patients who use the health center. The health center had logged 394 cases as of March 11, including 173 among colony residents and tribal members.

The nation’s 574 recognized Native American tribes have been hit hard by the  pandemic.  COVID-19 has infected the Indian population at three and a half times the rate of white people, according to one study, and taken their lives at nearly double the rate of white people.

“The death rate among American Indians is staggering,” Sam said. “So much has been lost in Indian country this past year. It’s terrible to lose anyone from the community, but overall we’ve done pretty well in terms of mitigation. That’s to the credit of our Unified Command and Emergency Services team and the leadership of the chairman and the tribal council. The tribe has been very strategic and the leadership has been very caring about the community.”

The Washoe Tribe

The Washoe Tribe of California and Nevada, which encompasses four communities and has a membership of about 1,400 people, had distributed 535 doses of the Moderna vaccine as of March 11. The tribe’s clinic reported about 200 positive cases so far in the pandemic and four deaths among tribal members and people who attend the tribe’s healing center.

Herman Fillmore, emergency operations center liaison officer for the Washoe Tribe, said there is some vaccine hesitancy among members, but most people want to get the shots.

“Our tribal elders understand the seriousness of the pandemic, and they were the first ones to get the vaccine,” he said. “Younger people who have elderly relatives that they interact with frequently, they see the elders get it, and then they are chomping at the bit to get their vaccines.”

Fillmore said talking to people about the seriousness of the pandemic, especially if they haven’t been touched by it in the own life, is a way to overcome skepticism about getting inoculated. “We’ve seen enough of our tribal members be affected by this,” he said. “I think a lot of people here are taking it very seriously.”

“I have to give a lot of credit to our tribal membership for social distancing, wearing masks and doing what they have to do to protect themselves and others. That’s why I think we don’t have huge numbers of cases and or deaths in our communities.” — Herman Fillmore, emergency operations center liaison officer for the Washoe Tribe.

Community cooperation

Fillmore said although there was some delay in allocating funds from the CARES Act due to unclear guidance from the federal government, the tribe responded quickly to the emergency to provide safety nets and resources for tribal members. In the end, he said, “It really does come down to everybody on a very personal basis doing what they should be doing to protect the whole.”

Most community members followed the precautions. “We haven’t had very many people who are unwilling to wear masks; they understand the nature of this,” he said. “However, in some of our businesses we have had a lot of people from the local community who have refused to wear masks for various reasons and still want to enter our facilities and that’s made it tough for us to handle.”   

The Washoe tribe didn’t order curfews or set up roadblocks on its lands, although the measure had been suggested, Fillmore said. “It’s difficult to do that on trust lands with the roads going through. It’s hard to shut down full access.”

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Nevada National Guard nurses collect a sample from a Pyramid Lake Paiute tribal member at a testing station on the reservation this fall. The Guard set up testing sits at tribal reservations and colonies across the state.

Pyramid Lake reopened

 The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s Health Clinic had administered more than 750 vaccines to the more than 1,300 enrolled tribal members living on the reservation by early March. As of March 4, the tribe reported 223 positive cases of COVID-19 and five deaths due to complications of the illness.

Early in the pandemic, the tribe closed some of its offices and instituted a curfew. Tribal council closed off tribal lands, including the shores of Pyramid Lake, to all but members for seven months. The roadblocks were lifted in November and the lake was reopened to daytime recreational use, including boating and fishing.

Specific case and vaccine-dose statistics were not readily available for the other 24 federally-recognized tribes in Nevada. But the Nevada Current reported on March 4 that the Indian Health Service has delivered more than 10,000 vaccine doses to tribal and urban Indian health care partners in the Silver State, and about 6,000 of those doses had already been administered.

There are 27 federally-recognized American Indian tribes in Nevada. Many are located in in remote areas of the state.

Tribes ‘doing a great job’

The Nevada Current story quoted Debra Ward Lund, chief nurse officer for the IHS Phoenix Area and team lead for the Phoenix Area vaccine task force: “Nevada is doing a great job and is moving quickly. They have a smaller population than, say, Phoenix, but the proportion of our Nevada recipients is very high. They are winning out of our three states.”

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony has lifted its roadblocks, but tribal lands remain closed to the general public. The curfew is still in effect, but all tribal employees returned to work in March.

“The numbers are starting to decline; it’s easy to get lax. (But) it’s a very critical time to do our best to have all people stay safe… Please try to stay home. We’re following state guidelines, but we’re being even more cautious than the state. We have a small population and have to be extra careful.” – Arlan D. Melendez, tribal chairman, Reno-Sparks Indian Colony in a recent video update for tribal members.

The tribe is now getting shots into arms at the rate of 80 a day, split between first and second vaccine doses. During the shutdown, the colony’s public works department installed plexiglass shields in all offices as well as touchless faucets, water fountains and toilets at tribal facilities.

PHOTO: RENO-SPARKS INDIAN COLONY: A tribal member shows his support for COVID-19 precautions.

The new normal

The land closures and curfews may be lifted on April 1, depending on the course of the pandemic. “Everything depends on what happens with the infection rate and how the tribe is doing,” Sam said. “It all depends on the data and what’s happening in the Colony and Hungry Valley.”

The weekly updates will continue to keep tribal members informed, she said.

“The community has been responsive to all the information we’ve been putting out,” Sam said. “We’re working together to keep everyone as safe as possible.  Our goal is to get everyone vaccinated so we can get back to a new normal and get back to where we left off.”

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