Interior Secretary visits Cherokee; delivers masks and tours testing site 

by May 5, 2020Front Page, Health, NEWS ka-no-he-da





U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt visited the Qualla Boundary on Tuesday, May 5.  While there, he checked out the coronavirus (COVID-19) mobile testing site for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and also visited Cherokee Central Schools where he helped box up meals for children and distribute face masks.  

Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed, standing left, and U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt distribute meals and cloth face masks at Cherokee Central Schools on the morning of Tuesday, May 5. (SCOTT MCKIE B.P./One Feather photos)

Secretary Bernhardt delivered several boxes of cloth, machine-washable face masks to the school to distribute to members of the community.  This is part of an effort, facilitated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) which plans to distribute 1 million nationwide.  

He praised the Tribe’s mobile testing site and noted, “It is really phenomenal and such an important component of public health.” 

In speaking on the face masks, Secretary Bernhardt said, “A big part of the President’s effort to slow the spread is to try to maintain that hospital capacity as we go forward.  What we’ve learned as we’ve gone is that there are a lot of asymptomatic folks.  So, one of the things a person can do, not to prevent getting infected but to prevent exacerbating the spread is to wear a face covering.”  

Chief Sneed and Secretary Bernhardt look over a package containing a cotton cloth face mask. During his visit, Secretary Bernhardt brought several boxes to be distributed locally.

Information from the HHS states, “To support the implementation of this essential guidance, the federal government has taken a whole of America approach – partnering with members of the National Council of Textile Organizations and the U.S. Post Office – to manufacture and distribute machine-washable and reusable 100 percent cotton face coverings as a practical measure to help combat the spread of COVID-19.”  

Secretary Bernhardt said they are made from a high-quality cotton.  “We all should do our part the best we can, and that’s just one thing people can consider doing.  We’re trying to make it easy for them.”  

Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed met with Secretary Bernhardt on the Qualla Boundary and they met with Great Smoky Mountains Superintendent Cassius Cash following their visits in Cherokee.  

Chief Sneed complimented Secretary Bernhardt for visiting Cherokee.  “He’s a very personable guy and seems very genuinely concerned about issues facing tribes and how he can assist in speeding up processes.  The bureaucracy is what the bureaucracy is, but he seems to be focused on trying to help speed those things up.”  

Forrest Stamper, left, and Secretary Bernhardt prepare meals to be distributed to families through the Cherokee Central Schools food distribution program.

Yona Wade, CCS community affairs director, commented, “I think we’re super blessed, here at Cherokee Central Schools, to be able to offer a feeding program.  Communities around the nation, with COVID-19, are struggling in some instances to feed their families.  Food insecurity is a big issue.  Being able to do this and being able to have the Secretary here to highlight the good things that we’re doing as a Tribe through the food program, our testing, how we’re continuing the continuity of education for our students, I think is really a big deal.” 

He added, “The masks that they’ve brought to donate are really going to help our families.  Even though, at some point, the Tribe is going to open and we’ll be back to semi-normal, masks are going to become normal for us and being able to have this brought to us when we know that there are masks shortages anyways is really good for our community.”  

HHS information states the importance of the use of the cloth masks, “Since many persons may not know they are sick, the federal government determined there is a need for a product that can serve as an added ‘source control measure’.  The cotton-based face covering is intended to reduce the potential spread of virus from the wearer ‘the source’ to others ‘the recipient’.  Encouraging everyone to wear a reusable cloth covering may help reduce spread from asymptomatic persons.”  

Chief Sneed said he was glad they were able to meet with Park officials, “We do have a unique relationship with the Park with our gathering rule (sochan).  We were the first tribe to be able to do that, and that really set a new precedent.” 

The National Park Service (NPS) is also under the purview of Secretary Bernhardt, and he addressed the NPS’ overall viewpoint on the re-opening of parks nationwide.     

  Secretary Bernhardt said, “From the very beginning, we’ve said that public health was our priority for the general public and our visitors and employees.  To ensure that, we worked with a series of public health officers…we worked with them and developed a protocol that the parks can use to look at each service they provided before the pandemic – each facility that they used during the pandemic.”  

Secretary Bernhardt said the plans will vary from park unit to park unit, but most will have basic services such as roads and trails.  “As the governors have slightly different views, different locations will have different things.” 

  He went on to say, “We want to be very closely aligned with the local communities.  One of the things we’ll be tracking is what are their local public health officials saying, feeling, and thinking about that local community?  Because we are going to be in alignment with them.”