First positive COVID-19 case confirmed on Umatilla Indian Reservation

By Wil Phinney of the CUJ

MISSION – The first positive case of COVID-19 has been confirmed on the Umatilla Indian Reservation through testing at Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center.

The Confederated Tribes and Yellowhawk have jurisdiction to do the investigation and contact tracing because the individual who tested positive is a resident of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Because of federal privacy laws, officials could not identify the individual by age or sex, or whether he or she is Native American.

The positive test will not change re-opening plans for CTUIR government or its entities. Employees returned to the Nixyaawii Governance Center on Monday, June 15, while Wildhorse Resort & Casino opened back up at the end of May.

“Tribal government will continue to follow our current protocols for re-opening and Yellowhawk will engage in all the procedures laid out in our plans for how to respond in the event an individual tests positive,” said Jane Hill, Public Information Officer for the CTUIR.

Yellowhawk was in the process Tuesday of conducting contact tracing of individuals identified by the infected person since he or she started experiencing symptoms, according to Courtney Stover, Public Information Officer at the clinic.

Yellowhawk has seven people who are trained contact tracers and six more who will complete the training by next week. Additionally, if needed the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board has trained contact tracers ready to assist Tribes in the region.

Stover said at about 2 p.m. Tuesday that Yellowhawk was confident contact of the people named on the contact list would be completed within 24 hours. A close contact is defined as anyone within six feet of the infected individual for more than 15 minutes from the time they started feeling sick.

“The purpose now is to respond, to monitor and see how and if the COVID-19 spreads,” Stover said.

Yellowhawk intends to monitor and identify areas to focus on if increased testing is necessary.

“COVID-19 is a new disease and we’re learning more each day about how it spreads and how it impacts people it spreads to,” Stover said.

When a case of COVID-19 is confirmed, it triggers an investigation that includes asking the individual about his or her symptoms, where they’ve been, who they’ve been in contact with, etc., and from there a list of close contacts is generated, Stover said. The criteria for a close contact is anyone within six feet for more than 15 minutes based on when the sick individual started experiencing symptoms.

Contact tracers identify themselves as Yellowhawk employees (or from another health authority if that is the case) via phone or text to notify the contact that they may have been exposed to COVID-19. They ask the person if they are experiencing symptoms and about their risk.

Contact tracers, Stover said, continue to monitor each person they call for 14 days from the last contact he or she had with the individual who tested positive. Contact tracers call each day to ask those persons about fever, cough, shortness of breath and other COVID-19 symptoms.

“They do that on a daily basis. That’s the role of the contact tracer,” Stover said.

If the contact develops symptoms, he or she becomes a presumptive case. From there, that person would likely be tested and, depending on the outcome, could become a confirmed case.

Kat Brigham, CTUIR Board of Trustees Chair, said in a CTUIR news release that the Tribes were ready for this situation.

“We have anticipated the possibility of a positive case and we are moving forward with our plan,” she said.

Hill echoed Brigham.

“Absolutely it was not a surprise,” she said. “We built a plan for what to do in the event there was a positive case because the Tribes anticipated a positive case at some time. Now we’re moving through the process; we knew we would need to be prepared.”

The Tribes started those preparations before Umatilla County and the State of Oregon.

In March, the CTUIR established an Incident Command Team that brought together tribal leaders, including the CEOs of entities such as Wildhorse Resort & Casino, Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center, Nixyaawii Governance Center, and Cayuse Holdings.

The Tribes closed down the government except for core employees. It closed Wildhorse Resort & Casino, including the hotel and all the restaurants. Arrowhead Travel Plaza remained open on a restricted basis.

The Incident Command Team established strict social distancing rules – tougher regulations than state and local governments. CTUIR social distancing rules even led to citations for 17 adults who were part of a gathering of about two dozen people in April.

In May, Yellowhawk began conducting a surveillance study, testing 100 people over six weeks in three different tests that were two weeks apart. Each participant was tested with a swab for the virus and was given a blood test to identify if they carried the antibody. No one tested positive for the virus. One person tested positive for the antibody, which means they had been infected with the virus.

The person who on Tuesday tested positive for COVID-19 was not part of the Yellowhawk surveillance study.

BOT Chair Brigham encouraged the CTUIR to continue to follow basic safety protocols.

“I want to reinforce with the entire community that physical distancing and good personal hygiene are the best ways to stop this from spreading further,” she said.

The CTUIR official news release, listed the following to “protect yourself and others”:

  • Maintain a distance of at least six feet between you and other people not in your household.
  • Wear a cloth face covering in areas where it is difficult to maintain distance from others.
  • Avoid all personal contact with others not in your household (i.e. handshaking).
  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water (for at least 20 seconds) or use hand sanitizer (60-95% alcohol based).
  • Regularly clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces like doorknobs, phones, remotes, and light switches.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or use the inside of your elbow.
  • Follow all public health recommendations issued by the CTUIR ICT

Also, the news release states, if you are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 including fever, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat or new loss of taste or smell, or feel you may have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, call your healthcare provider. They will help decide if you need an appointment or need to be tested. 

Yellowhawk patients can call 541-966-9830 to speak with their healthcare provider. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 911.For the most up to date information regarding COVID-19 on the UIR, please visit