As the rest of the country continues its struggle to curb the now-astronomical coronavirus case rates, a tribe in Oklahoma is being hailed by experts for its successful response to the pandemic. According to STAT, the Cherokee Nation has had a mask mandate in place since March, along with protocols and safety measures that enabled the tribe to control its coronavirus infection rate, despite surging numbers in other parts of the state.
The Cherokee Nation reportedly has free drive-through testing in place as well as an abundance of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at hospitals. With the support of tribe leader Chief Hoskin, the tribe implemented early interventions that didn’t rely on pharmaceuticals.
“We knew there was really not a lot that you could do clinically once someone contracted the virus, but we knew that you could help keep people from contracting it,” Lisa Pivec, senior director of public health for the Cherokee Nation Health Services, told NPR. “The first things that we did were more along the line of stay-at-home-type orders, sending our workforce—the most vulnerable of our workforce—to work from home, putting in mask mandates pretty fairly early for certain areas. We also started screening at the doors.”
The tribe, which has a population of about 140,000 citizens residing in its reservation in northeastern Oklahoma, has reportedly experienced more than 11,000 coronavirus cases and 63 deaths to date. Despite this, the efforts of the Cherokee Nation—a people who were historically almost eradicated by smallpox—at instilling discipline within the tribe to follow mitigating measures have proven successful.
Now, many in the Cherokee nation have received the vaccination, something one fifth-grade teacher said preserves “everything. Our culture. Our beliefs. Our ways.”
According to Pivec, the tribe has seen zero cases of workplace transmission. Sequoyah High School has reopened this fall for in-person learning with rapid testing and mask protocols in place. Elective medical and dental procedures have also been fully restored.
Oklahoma’s COVID-19 numbers have been recently deemed “unyielding” by the White House Coronavirus Task Force. According to the New York Times, at least 15 new coronavirus deaths and 1,737 new cases were reported in Oklahoma on Dec. 1. Over the following seven days, there was an average of 2,696 cases per day, an increase of 3% from the average two weeks earlier. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt also opposed a statewide mask mandate, which illustrates the remarkable success the Cherokee Nation has had in gaining control of the coronavirus within tribal lines.
“When you have a leader who makes decisions that are not rooted in science and that are not rooted in what’s best for everyone, then that does impact anyone that lives in that area,” Pivec told NPR. “So when you have a leader at that level say that a mask mandate won’t help or doesn’t matter, or you shouldn’t care, then lots of people are going to listen and believe that.”
According to AP News, Stitt participated in a news conference in early November, alongside local physicians, calling on residents to voluntarily wear masks and to practice social distancing and hand washing. Oklahoma remains one of the few states that have not instituted a statewide mask mandate, however, according to AARP.
In contrast to the lackluster response at a federal level, the Cherokee Nation’s early, effective, and aggressive measures are garnering positive attention globally.
“It’s very impressive. It’s a reminder of how much leadership matters and how even under difficult circumstances, with limited resources, you can make a huge difference,” Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told STAT. “You see countries like Vietnam. They’re not a wealthy country, but they’ve been following the science and doing a great job.”
Pivec even shared the secret to the Cherokee Nation’s success at battling the coronavirus.
“My advice for state and federal leaders is to take out the idea that this virus is partisan, and to understand that these are real people suffering and that we have to come together as one people,” shared Pivec. “We have to think about others. And that’s something that Cherokees do. And that’s how we live, is collectively and understanding that what we do and how we live impacts others. Don’t ask, what are my rights? Ask, what are my responsibilities?”