CASPER — Tribal leaders say the coronavirus, which led to the deaths of four Northern Arapaho citizens on Monday, is spreading on the reservation after initially being tied to two family clusters.
As of Wednesday, tests had confirmed 51 cases of COVID-19 in the county and on the Wind River Reservation. At least 24 of those cases were among tribal members — who leaders and others say are especially vulnerable to the illness — on the reservation.
In addition, Fremont County Public Health Officer Dr. Brian Gee stated during a Wednesday news conference that at least one of the deceased tribal citizens contracted the illness sometime before the county confirmed its first case on March 13 at the Showboat retirement facility in Lander, meaning it had been circulating in the county before then.
Initially, the first cases on the reservation were contained among two families — with transmission to a tribal member coming from the Showboat facility, where the first confirmed case in Fremont County originated.
But now the illness has spread beyond those initial two families, Northern Arapaho Business Council Chairman Lee Spoonhunter said.
“This is not contained anymore,” he said in an interview Tuesday evening. “Now, you’re seeing testing where there are positive cases that are no longer linked or tied to an earlier case.”
The number of confirmed cases on the reservation is likely due both to the tribes conducting a significant portion of the state’s coronavirus tests and the virus starting to spread more widely among tribal citizens.
“The more testing that you do, the more positives you’re likely going to find,” Gee said. “I think that there is spread, but they’re trying very hard to kind of get that spread to slow down, and I think they’ve done a pretty good job of it. I think they feel like they have a pretty good handle on it right now, and that testing has been a key component for them. But that can also be a little bit of the bump.”
He added a lot of the confirmed tests have come from individuals who were already in quarantine and who health officials suspected already had COVID-19.
The two tribes have also take more aggressive steps, like issuing a stay-at-home order punishable by a fine or jail time, than most other local governments in Wyoming.
As of April 16, the Northern Arapaho Tribe’s Wind River Family and Community Healthcare had conducted 20 percent of the state’s tests, having a private lab provide results, Wyoming Public Radio reported.
One potential downside, Gee said last week, is that such private tests could yield more false-negative results than those being processed by the state.
For the entire county, Gee said it’s too difficult to say whether it has reached its peak of cases.
In the meantime, Gee and tribal leaders have emphasized the importance of following recommendations — like frequent hand washing, social distancing and wearing masks when in public — to mitigate the spread of the illness.
“I think that’s a difficult thing to know when the peak is. And I think that’s some of the consternation in the health care world, as to when is the best time to think about opening things up and and how to do that safely,” he said. “Obviously want to help stimulate people’s economy and businesses as best we can. The concern would be that we get another large surge, which could be very, very likely.”
While the tribes have been leaders in the state for testing numbers, Gee said testing capability for the rest of the county has been improving but still not adequate, adding that the state still is asking health care workers to limit their testing to higher-risk people.
“We’re getting definitely more tests from the state now,” he said. “Now, we don’t have thousands of tests to just roll out. I wish I could tell you we had 50,000 tests, and we can test everybody. That would be great. We don’t have that.”
In a Wednesday web address for tribal citizens, Eastern Shoshone Business Council Vice-Chair Karen Snyder said it is important to work together and remain united while combating COVID-19.
Gee also said it is important for all residents and officials throughout the county to work together, while adding that he has frequently communicated with tribal officials to coordinate efforts.
“The coronavirus is spreading rapidly through our communities and we realize a large percentage of our population have other existing health conditions, and it is so important to protect yourself and your families,” Snyder said in her address. “Please do not place blame or point fingers, as that is the type of divisive behavior that creates barriers. I am a firm believer in unity, collaboration and open, candid discussions, and that is how we flatten the curve and work to overcome this crisis.”