COVID cases jump in July

By Cary Rosenbaum of the CUJ

MISSION – The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation reached a small but grim milestone in July.

Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center officials stated a second death has occurred since the pandemic began. And cases spiked in July with 86 locals diagnosed with the virus, according to Yellowhawk Interim CEO Aaron Hines.

“The biggest concern is that community members do not get complacent regarding COVID-19 precautions,” he said. “Due to break-through cases and unvaccinated community members, it is still important for people to continue to follow COVID-19 recommended guidelines.”

The 86 cases represents approximately 22.5 percent of the total cases diagnosed since the start of the pandemic, with 10 percent of those considered breakthrough.

The dominant COVID strand identified is the Delta variant, according to Yellowhawk. Though there’s a small sample size, due to the need to receive data from the state laboratory, about 15 out of 17 cases studied have been linked to the Delta variant. And about one in every four of the 39 active cases are individuals who received their COVID vaccine.

A flurry of changes were made in response to the surge in cases, including re-mandating mask wearing at the Nixyaawii Governance Center.

That mandate was removed in early July, only to be reinstated July 14 by outgoing Incident Commander Paul Rabb.

“I feel it is my duty to inform you that there have been a number of staff members (5) who tested positive for COVID in the past week,” Rabb said in a July 14 email to CTUIR staff, “including both staff members who have been vaccinated and those who have not been vaccinated.”

“While I regret to have to take this step,” Rabb added, “and especially so recently after having removed the restrictions and opened up for near-normal operations, it is crucial to resume the wearing of masks in all open spaces, in meeting rooms, and in any shared areas of the NGC in order to limit the potential spread of the virus.”

On July 30, the Incident Command Team (ICT) that’s been in place since the start of the pandemic was dismantled and delegated to Yellowhawk, per incoming Interim Executive Director Teara Farrow Ferman.

“The Incident Command Team will be dismantled on July 30, 2021 and COVID-19 public health issues will be handled and lead by Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center,” Farrow Ferman said. “The Office of the Executive Director will continue to meet weekly with YTHC regarding COVID-19 public health issues and will inform CTUIR employees of future safety precautions and/or restrictions for Tribal government facilities.

“Beginning July 31,” she added, “each Tribal entity (Yellowhawk, Wildhorse Resort & Casino, Cayuse Holdings, Nixyaawii Community Financial Services) will issue their own safety precautions and restrictions for their facilities.”

Another change was the issuance of new guidance for CTUIR funerals. Key pieces of that guidance include: Religious services conducted will require all persons wearing a mask, even if fully vaccinated; safe distancing from the body during the viewing; recommending people wash their hands before and after the services; prohibiting the touching of a deceased body; recommending services be held outdoors; requiring masks, even for those fully vaccinated; restricting pall bearers to the minimum number necessary; prohibiting in-person meals; recommending the push back of giveaways; and limiting the number of people in attendance to just family members.

The measure is part of a larger plan to help prevent further COVID-19 outbreaks on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Farrow Ferman said.

“In August, the Office of the Executive Director will be working closely with Yellowhawk and the Tribal entities on guidance to help prevent further COVID-19 outbreaks. This will include new public service announcements, continuing to encourage people to get vaccinated, and to follow CDC guidelines to stop the spread of germs. The Delta variant is spreading very quickly and has infected fully-vaccinated people; therefore, we will encourage people to wear their masks in all indoor spaces and while at large gatherings outside of work and the mask mandate for all Tribal government facilities will likely be extended past the current August 6th mandate.”

Farrow Ferman said the Tribe is considering the implementation of a testing policy for all employees, but the details are still being developed.

Three breakthrough cases were noted in an Aug. 2 update by Yellowhawk, and four non-breakthrough positives — meaning a person was infected by the virus, survived, did not get the vaccination and contracted the virus again.

“To date, there have been 35 break through cases and 402 total cases,” Hines said.

Some of those cases were diagnosed at a mass COVID-19 testing event held July 24 at Yellowhawk.

With the start of school just around the corner, Yellowhawk noted vaccines are still available to the public, including those 12 and older, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m.