By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
Later this month, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) will mark a year since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the Cherokee community. Tribal officials announced the case during a press conference on March 27, 2020 stating that the individual was a part-time resident of the Qualla Boundary.
Casey Cooper, Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority (CIHA) chief executive officer, reported during that same press conference that, as of that morning, they had completed 30 tests with the one positive case and the rest pending.
As of March 1, 2021, the EBCI Joint Information Center is reporting a total of 1,369 cases within the Cherokee system. A total of 22,414 tests have been completed by that date as well.
“There have been many successes, but the most successful would have to be testing, isolation, and quarantine,” said Vickie Bradley, EBCI Secretary of Public Health and Human Services. “That is a standard public health practice in disease containment; identifying those that are infected, isolating them and quarantining their contacts, testing them and containing the virus. Transparent communication with our community through our COVID-19 Dashboard and public service announcements was a tremendous tool also in helping to slow the virus. This got our whole community involved in the response.”
Secretary Bradley added, “Of course, all of our success has been predicated on the amazing commitment and hard work of our employees. Their dedication and work ethic has been phenomenal. I don’t know of any measure or action that we took that could be considered unsuccessful. All of the actions and decisions were very strategic and evidence-based.”
Dr. Richard Bunio, CIHA executive clinical director, noted, “The most successful mitigation area over the past year has been the public education around the three Ws (washing hands, wait six feet apart, and wearing a mask).”
But it hasn’t been all roses. The challenges faced over the past year of the global pandemic have been immense.
“What I have found to be most challenging is the time and effort addressing all of the inaccurate information that is spread through social media,” said Dr. Bunio.
Secretary Bradley added, “In the beginning, the largest challenge was helping people to understand the three Ws and why they are so important, particularly wearing masks. The other challenge and one that we still battle is helping the community to understand the risk of large gatherings and how they can contribute to the spread of the disease.”
She praises the efforts of the policies put forth by the EBCI. “I wouldn’t change any policies,” Secretary Bradley said when asked if there were any policies she would have changed from this previous year. “The Chief’s (Richard G. Sneed) executive orders were swift, targeted, and embedded with best-practice measures. HIs actions in our community helped to mitigate the virus quickly and keep the community safe. Not only did he take bold actions that impacted our community’s safety, but he implemented amazing operational policies and protocols that protected the tribal workforce and citizens.”
Both health officials see COVID-19 as remaining a threat for the remainder of 2021. “I think the science will support and encourage practicing the three Ws for at least another year,” said Secretary Bradley. “Until we have herd immunity, we will continue to need to practice the three Ws. This is why it is important for everyone to get vaccinated. I think as more people take the vaccine, and as the COVID-19 numbers trend down, we will begin to see services and businesses begin to open more to the public.”
According to the EBCI Joint Information Center, as of March 1, a total of 5,013 COVID-19 vaccinations had been administered. It was reported that 1,488 people in the Cherokee medical system are “fully vaccinated” meaning they have received both COVID-19 vaccinations and 3,525 have received “at least one shot”.
Dr. Bunio added, “I see the Cherokee community operating with continued adherence to the three Ws until such time as the case rates tell us it is safe to relax. Right now, the case rates and potential impact of the variants are still too much of a risk to relax these simple, effective measures.”
The team effort of all health employees and officials within the EBCI tribal structure was praised by both Dr. Bunio and Secretary Bradley.
“This crisis has brought out the best in everyone and strengthened the collaboration between all health agencies of the Tribe,” said Dr. Bunio. “By working so closely together, we have accomplished much more than we ever could have individually.”
Secretary Bradley commented, “The combined efforts of (EBCI) Public Health and Human Services and the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority has been the key to success in the pandemic response. Research shows that the best approach to improving population health in any community is when there is true collaboration and integration of the primary medical system and the public health agency. We are so fortunate here to have that scenario.”
She concluded, “Even though PHHS and CIHA are separate agencies, our teams work closely to improve the health of the community and ensure the safety of public health. This partnership has proven to be an amazing team during the COVID-19 response. In the beginning, when there was no state system for isolation, quarantine, and testing, CIHA stood up a system that worked. Once North Carolina implemented the contact tracing system, PHHS transitioned the contact tracing to the tribal side and partnered with North Carolina. This is a great example of how successful our combined efforts have been.”