Published On: Sun, Mar 21st, 2021

COMMENTARY: Tsali Care Center’s zero COVID count is remarkable 



One Feather Staff 


Tsali Care Center is one of the only nursing homes in the state of North Carolina that has not had a case of COVID-19 since the pandemic began last year.  According to information from the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services, a total of 34,736 cases have been reported at nursing homes statewide with 3,902 deaths which represents 33 percent of the total deaths in the state as of Wednesday, March 17.  

Dr. Richard Bunio, Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority executive clinical director, noted, “In my opinion, the COVID mitigation measures and the firm application of these protections are the reason Tsali Care has remained one of the few nursing homes in the state with no COVID cases or loss of life.  They are to be commended for remaining steadfast in their efforts to protect the elders in their charge, often in the face of misinformation and pressure to relax the safety bubble they have built.”  

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has done a nice job of vaccinating tribal members especially tribal elders.  

Vickie Bradley, Secretary of EBCI Public Health and Human Services, said, “We decided right out of the gate when we realized that the vaccine was delayed from the state to Tsali to go ahead and use IHS (Indian Health Service) supply and get everyone vaccinated.”

And, their efforts have worked. 

According to the EBCI Joint Information Center (JIC), a total of 747 (688 American Indians and Alaska Natives) people in the 60-69 age range and 646 (620 AI/AN) in the 70+ range have been fully vaccinated as of Friday, March 19.  

The EBCI JIC states that those numbers equal 66 percent of the 60-69 range and an impressive 75 percent in the 70+ range.   

Rita Driver, an EBCI tribal member, is very thankful for the lack of COVID cases at Tsali Care because her 95-year-old mother has been a resident there for the past four years.  

“The employees do an awesome job of taking care of residents,” she said.  “They are very open to family requests for our loved ones.  If there are issues, they are open to talking with family members and working out what is best for the family and the family’s loved one.”  

Driver is a staunch advocate for the staff at Tsali Care.  “I personally believe that the CNAs should be paid more for the hard job they do, and all staff deserve hazard pay for this past year.  The staff of Tsali Care, in my opinion, have had to change their lives more than any other group of employees over this past year in order to keep our loved ones safe from COVID-19.”  

This past year has been hard on Driver and other family members of Tsali Care Residents.  She received a call on March 19, 2020 that visitors wouldn’t be allowed “until further notice”.  

She commented, “This was devastating for me to hear.  I was at Tsali Care seven days a week visiting my mom and other residents I had come to think of as family.  Although it was devastating to not be able to visit, I personally feel it was the right call.” 

Driver describes the “new normal” of visiting through the COVID-19 pandemic, “The maintenance staff built a booth out of plexiglass in June so that families could visit with loved ones.  iPads for Face Timing were donated to the facility by three of my grandbabies for residents to use – for those who may not have been able to go outside or when it got too cold to go outside.  About a month ago, families were notified that short visits with loved ones were being allowed which was awesome to hear.”  

In May 2020, I wrote an article entitled “Tsali Care Center taking precautions to safeguard residents” which included the measures they were undertaking to ensure safety.  From that article, “Some of the precautions the staff are taking include: temperature checks upon entry, symptom assessments upon entry, requiring face coverings to be worn at all times (N95 grade for direct resident care), participation in a drill for COVID-19 preparedness, staff only works at Tsali Care Center and not any other facilities, and housekeeping practices have been adjusted.  Precautions being taken by residents include: visitors are not allowed; outings, group activities, and group dining has been suspended; given cloth masks and encouraged to wear at all times; symptom checks and vital signs are taken by staff daily; all new or re-admitted patients are quarantined on an observation hall for 14 days; all new or re-admitted patients must have negative COVID-19 test; and all appointments outside of the facility are evaluated for their necessity.” 

In that article, Dr. Blythe Winchester, MD, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who serves as the certified medical director of the Center, noted, ““We appreciate the steps that have had to be taken and the difficulty this poses for our residents, families, and staff,” said Dr. Winchester.  “We thank those in the community who have provided phone support, donated gifts, and offered other services to assist everyone during this time.”  

It has taken a village to make this a reality, and everyone involved – from Tsali Care staff to residents, families, and the community at large – should be commended for keeping this portion of Cherokee’s elders safe during this pandemic.