By Casey Brown of the CUJ
MISSION – Wildhorse Resort & Casino and Nixyaawii Education Center re-opened Wednesday, March 5, two days after Tribal officials learned that an employee of the gaming facility had tested presumptive positive for coronavirus.
It was the third person in Oregon who was presumed positive for COVID-19, commonly referred to as novel coronvirus. The other two cases are in Lake Oswego.
Tribal leaders closed Wildhorse, including the hotel, and the Education Center at noon Monday, March 3, as a safety precaution and ordered a sanitizing regimen.
A battery of workers toiled for two days cleaning the facilities.
Wildhorse Casino General Manager Al Tovey reported that the building had been sanitized by Monday afternoon (March 3).
He said that day that crews were going to “double clean” the facility and were considering bringing in an outside company for more cleaning.
As of March 4, the COVID-19, which originated in China, had caused illness across more than 70 countries. In the United States, the virus had spread to 14 states. Nine people had died in Washington state.
An employee of Wildhorse Resort & Casino, fell ill at an AAU basketball tournament in Weston and was taken to a hospital in Walla Walla, Washington.
In response, Wildhorse was closed for the first time in its 25-year history.
The Board of Trustees (BOT) met in an emergency meeting early March 2 and established an Incident Command, which consists of staff from Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center and the Tribal government. Lisa Guzman, Yellowhawk CEO, was named Incident Commander.
The BOT closed the Senior Center, Nixyaawii Community School, Head Start and Daycare. All community events scheduled on the Umatilla Indian Reservation from March 2-8 were cancelled.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown and Oregon Health Authority notified the Board that the presumptive positive case was a Wildhorse staff member, according to a CTUIR press release. The case remains presumptive, meaning a test came back positive, but as of press time had not been verified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
A majority of Wildhorse’s 900-person staff, along with all customers, went home at noon March 2. They were paid while the building was closed.
A crew of about 30 people, consisting of custodians, security officers, and department managers and directors, remained in the building to sanitize and keep the building secure, according to General Manager Al Tovey.
“It’s not normal [to close], but we want to take precautions that guests and staff are safe, first and foremost,” Tovey said.
Nick Eastwood, custodial manager, said the custodial department started preparing as soon as the outbreak was reported.
“We really ramped up sanitization efforts and stocked up on supplies, so when this hit here we were already as prepared as possible,” said Eastwood. “As soon as there was a concern, we responded immediately. We met right away and came up with a plan of action.”
Eastwood said he isn’t worried about exposure, despite the fact that he remained in the facility.
“I’m not worried about my own personal exposure because I’m a psycho about washing my hands,” he said. “It’s probably rude, but even when people are still in my office, I’m already putting on hand sanitizer.”
COVID-19 is a strain of coronovirus that is similar to the common cold. This new strain is similar to SARS because it causes respiratory problems. More than 90,000 cases have been reported globally with more than 3,100 deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
(The WHO reports that the disease has killed about 3.4 percent of those diagnosed with the illness globally. By comparison, seasonal flu generally kills fewer than 1 percent of those infected.)
COVID-19 is a strain that has only spread in people since December 2019, according to the CDC. The virus is spread from one person to another through the air by coughing and sneezing, close personal contact, such as touching or shaking hands and touching an object or surface with the virus on it, then touching their mouth, nose, or eyes.
The Oregon Health Authority recommends four steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to their website, healthoregon.org/coronavirus.
“Wash your hands often with soap and water; avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth; avoid contact with sick people and stay home if you’re sick; cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or sleeve when coughing or sneezing.”
The Confederated Tribes are coordinating the response with the State of Oregon and Umatilla County. More information will be provided as it becomes available, according to Chuck Sams, communications director.
A hotline has been established. Dial 211 to discuss any concerns or questions.