Coronavirus blamed in death of four members of Northern Arapaho Tribe


RIVERTON — Four Fremont County residents have died due to complications of the coronavirus.

They are the first confirmed deaths from the global pandemic in Fremont County. The fatalities tripled Wyoming’s previous COVID death toll, which now stands at six.

The Northern Arapaho Tribe announced Tuesday morning that all four were members of the tribe. Each had tested positive for the virus in recent days.

The Wyoming Department of Health verified the deaths.

“It is with great sadness and a heavy heart that the Northern Arapaho Tribe confirms the death of four of our own who had tested positive for coronavirus, COVID-19,” said Northern Arapaho Business Council Chairman Lee Spoonhunter in a live YouTube video. He said two of the four were elders and while “we take solace and comfort in that… it does not discount the tremendous loss to our tribes” with the deaths. 

The Wyoming Department of Health stated Tuesday that all four had been hospitalized. 

According to multiple unofficial but reliable sources, three of the deceased are from the same family: married couple Gloria and Larry Wheeler, and their daughter Dawn Wheeler, of Ethete. Gloria reportedly was a resident of Showboat Retirement Center in Lander, which is where the first coronavirus cases in Wyoming were discovered last month.

Community members estimated the couple to have been in their 70s,  and Dawn Wheeler to have been in her 50s. 

Reportedly the three were transported to a medical facility in Casper, where they died Monday. 

A fourth tribal member from a different family also died Monday. The Wyoming Department of Health described him as an adult man, not elderly. Underlying health complications were a factor. 

Through Tuesday morning there have been 320 confirmed and 116 probable cases reported in Wyoming, 51 of them in Fremont County. 

Wyoming’s two previous confirmed deaths were in Johnson County and Laramie County.

Spoonhunter reinforced the tribe’s stay-at-home order, which is punishable by law if violated. 

“As tribal leaders we continue to put extraordinary levels of trust and responsibility on all of you,” to limit the spread of the virus. “Please stay at home. Do not be out in public spaces. Many of you continue to discard the safety of our elders by not adhering to these measures.” 

The chairman also offered his condolences to the families impacted by the loss. State Rep. Andi Clifford, D-Ethete, said these deaths are a sobering reminder of being “pragmatic” about reopening the economy of Fremont County, which has ailed under coronavirus-related closures and restrictions. 

“I don’t want us to be premature and have us suffer the consequences – because one death is too much,” said Clifford, citing Facebook rallies geared toward reopening Lander businesses and gatherings. 

“I’d rather be criticized for overreacting” to public health orders than under-reacting, she said. “As tribal people, we value our family members. We value our lives and take care of one another – more so than monetary or material items.” 

Wyoming Gov. Gordon banned large gatherings and forbade sit-down dining and close-proximity services like cosmetology and massage, at least through April 30. 

The Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone Tribes mirrored the action with their own public health orders, but effected a more restrictive stay-at-home order on the Wind River Indian Reservation on April 1. 

Clifford said the virus is more threatening among local tribal communities because of prominent health issues on the Wind River Indian Reservation. 

“We have a lot of health disparities with underlying conditions, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes,” she noted. “There’s just a large population of compromised people.”

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