Tribal leaders urge caution as COVID-19 cases surge

A person stands in a large ballroom at a centrifuge sitting on a table.
Ne-Ia-Shing Clinic employee Jenna Kuduk sets up a centrifuge at Grand Casino Hinckley on Sept. 23 to separate blood cells, which will then be tested later for the COVID-19 antibodies.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News file

Early in the pandemic, there was a lot of fear that if the coronavirus got a foothold in tribal communities in Minnesota, it could take a devastating toll. 

For months, tribes were largely successful in keeping the virus at bay. They launched aggressive campaigns on social media, encouraging people to wear masks, avoid crowds, and keep social distance. 

And they had another advantage — geography. Most reservations in Minnesota are far removed from some of the early hot spots in the Twin Cities and elsewhere. 

But now, cases are surging in rural areas across the region — and that's having an impact on tribal communities, too. In Minnesota, the number of new COVID-19 cases among Native Americans has grown by about 75 percent in the past month. 

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

After seeing cases dip to only a handful per week in August and September on the White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota, October has been a different story.

“We're seeing about 28 to 29 cases — active cases — per week,” said Emergency Manager Ed Snetsinger. 

Almost all the new cases in recent weeks have been linked to the same thing that’s driving cases statewide — family events. 

"Whether it's just getting together for birthday parties or weddings or funerals, that's the main cause of our increase in cases,” said Snetsinger. “Just human behavior in family events."

People are still complying with mask requirements in businesses and public places, he said. But in private, he said people on the White Earth Reservation — just like people everywhere across the state and the country — are tired of COVID-19. 

"And unfortunately, now's not the time to give up on some of those transmission prevention measures,” Snetsinger said.

So tribal leaders around the state are doubling down on their messaging. 

Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Chairman Kevin DuPuis recently reminded band members in a Facebook video that there are protocols in place for feasts and funerals — limiting gatherings to 10 immediate family members, meeting outside. 

"It's not about giving up your culture,” he said. “It's not about stopping the things that drive us Anishinaabe people. It's part of us, so I want everybody to continue doing that,” DuPuis said. “As long as you maintain that social distancing, you wear your mask, you wash your hands, that's all anyone can ask of an individual, is [that] you try to control what you can control."

That's become especially important lately for tribal nations in northern Minnesota such as Red Lake, White Earth and Leech Lake, which are surrounded by counties, including Clearwater and Hubbard, with some of the highest rates of COVID-19 community spread in the state. 

It’s not surprising, therefore, that “those reservations will also see an uptick” in cases, said Jackie Dionne, director of American Indian health with the Minnesota Department of Health.

That uptick would be worrisome anywhere, but it raises special concerns in tribal communities. When it comes to the most severe outcomes of COVID-19, Native Americans in Minnesota have the highest rates of hospitalization, ICU use and death of any group in the state — about double the rate of the state's population as a whole. 

That’s partly because Native American communities already suffer from high levels of diabetes, heart disease and other conditions which often result in more serious complications from the disease. 

"Going into COVID, we heard some of our tribal leaders say, if we were to get large spread on our reservation, we could wipe out our whole elder population,” said Dionne, which, in turn, could wipe out indigenous languages that tribes have been working for decades to revive. 

That's why it's so important to combat that COVID-19-fatigue, Dionne said.

"So there's just that need to keep this going. But it is really getting hard for folks."

Dionne and others know how deeply difficult that is, especially when it comes to things like saying goodbye to loved ones. 

But Native Americans have survived other pandemics, and Dionne is confident they will again, even if she’s concerned about health inequities and other disparities that are exacerbated by the pandemic. 

“We always seem to come out on the other side,” Dionne said. “We will persevere.” 

On the Red Lake Nation in far northwestern Minnesota, Chairman Darrell Seki said he's frustrated by high transmission rates in nearby Beltrami County, and with President Donald Trump for not communicating the importance of wearing masks. 

He said he's trying to do his part to convince people that COVID-19 is dangerous, and to take it seriously. The message remains the same, even if people are tired of hearing it. 

"I still encourage our people to wear a mask,” he said, in twice-weekly videos for tribal members posted on social media. “I don't like to wear masks, but I do it to try and save lives and avoid passing it around."

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.