After taking tough measures, Fond du Lac band has first COVID-19 cases

A sign reads "Fond du Lac Reservation"
After months of trying to keep the coronavirus at bay, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has confirmed the first two positive COVID-19 cases on its reservation in northeastern Minnesota.
Courtesy of Minnesota Indian Affairs Council file

After months of trying to keep the coronavirus at bay, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has confirmed the first two positive COVID-19 cases on its reservation in northeastern Minnesota.

The Fond du Lac Band has been preparing for COVID-19's arrival on its reservation outside Cloquet, Minn., for months: It was quick to close offices and businesses in the spring; it's offered drive through testing since April; and tribal leaders have consistently preached wearing a mask and social distancing.

Still, that didn't make it easier for Chairman Kevin DuPuis when he addressed the band's 4,200 members in a Facebook live video Wednesday.

"The biggest concern that we had from the onset of the COVID-19 was to reach our borders,” he said. “Well, it's reached our borders, and it's breached, so it's within the confines of the reservation."

The two infected patients live in the same household on the reservation. Fond du Lac Human Services Director Sam Moose said the band is working with the Minnesota Department of Health to try to prevent the virus from spreading further. He urged cooperation with contact tracers.

"Make sure you answer your phone calls, our team or MDH partners will be reaching out to family members on the reservation who may be in close contact with these cases," Moose said.

The coronavirus has devastated many tribal communities around the country, such as the Navajo Nation in the southwest.

But in Minnesota, overall numbers are still fairly low. So far there have been 485 confirmed cases among Native Americans, and 35 deaths. That's less than 1 percent of the state's total cases, and about 2 percent of deaths. Native Americans make up 1.4 percent of Minnesota's population.

Tribal governments responded aggressively to the virus, and followed the state's lead by issuing stay at home orders, according to Jackie Dionne, the Minnesota Department of Health’s tribal liaison.

"We probably didn't have the migration as much back and forth because of the shutdown between urban American Indians and their tribal homes that they would go to and visit," Dionne said.

Native people in Minnesota who contract COVID-19 tend to get much sicker. About a quarter of American Indians who have tested positive in the state have been hospitalized — that’s two and a half times the overall hospitalization rate.

The number who end up in the ICU is four times the statewide rate.

Dionne said that's in part because Native Americans have high rates of chronic diseases.

"American Indians have the highest rates of diabetes in the state,” Dionne said. “And so with that on top of COVID, it can be really deadly in terms of people not surviving."

State health officials are partnering with Minnesota tribes to improve testing and surveillance for COVID-19 in their reservation communities, Dionne said, "to see what the prevalence is in the community and to really watch for hot spots in their congregate living settings."

A lack of adequate housing means multiple generations of a family often live together under the same roof. With the underlying health disparities and lower access to health care, officials worry that if COVID-19 gets a foothold on Minnesota reservations, it could spread like wildfire.

Which is why, on the Fond du Lac reservation, DuPuis is urging everyone to be careful.

"Again, please, wear your mask, maintain that social distance, wash your hands for 20 seconds or more,” DuPuis said. “We really, really need to be vigilant about this. It’s in our homeland now.”

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