By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
One Feather Staff
After several months of very low case counts of COVID-19 being reported by the EBCI (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians) Joint Information Center (JIC), the Tribe is starting to see an uptick. JIC officials related that 15 new cases have been reported in the time frame from Wednesday, July 21 to Tuesday, July 27. A total of 12 new cases were reported the previous week.
Dr. Richard Bunio, Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority executive clinical director, said, “In general, a surge is any sustained increase in disease activity over time. We are using the monitoring tools established earlier in the pandemic and the color-coded risk levels to guide our response. We are currently at the orange risk level. Any trend that moves case counts back into the red risk level would merit consideration of public health measures to mitigate the effect on the community.”
Vickie Bradley, EBCI Secretary of Public Health and Human Services (PHHS) noted, “I agree with Dr. Bunio, if we continue to see a consistent uptick in positive cases and we remain in red then we will recommend more rigid mitigation measures to help stop the transmission of the virus such as wearing masks and limiting or stopping gatherings. What we do know currently is that the majority of positive cases in our community are those that have not been vaccinated. We have had break through cases, positive cases in those that are fully vaccinated, but those individuals are mostly asymptomatic (no symptoms) or have very mild symptoms.”
One of the reasons behind the recent surge nationwide is the COVID Delta variant. In a joint statement to the One Feather, Dr. Bunio, Secretary Bradley, and PHHS Epidemiologist Mark Tuttle said, “The Delta variant poses a serious risk to those who are unvaccinated. It is more contagious and appears to cause more serious disease. While the number of cases here on the Boundary is still fairly low, we are seeing an increase in infections in both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. The vaccines have been shown to provide good protection from serious illness with the Delta variant, so fully vaccinated people are at very low risk of hospitalization and death. If a vaccinated person is exposed to COVID they have a much lower chance of getting infected at all and, if infected, the illness is generally mild. Unvaccinated people are now at even higher risk of serious health problems with the Delta variant. Once this variant becomes more established it will spread mainly in unvaccinated people and could cause a surge in disease activity that would threaten a large number of people on the Boundary.”
They continued, “We are conducting ongoing surveillance and monitoring disease activity closely. We have a good stock of protective equipment and vaccine. Vaccinating as many people as possible is the best line of defense. If the Delta variant arrives in force then we would have to rely on the same mitigation controls that proved successful early in the pandemic such as mandatory masking. If our vaccination rates are high enough then this should not get to the levels we experienced earlier in the year.”
The three officials said no official cases of the Delta variant have been found yet within the EBCI tribal system. However, this may be due to the testing difficulties. “There is no quick test to distinguish the Delta Variant from any other case of COVD-19. This requires mapping the genetic material of the virus which is only available in a few labs. We have the ability to send cases that are of concern to the state who then decide if they merit genomic sequencing. The State also tests select samples as part of a nationwide surveillance program. We are unaware of any tests that have specifically identified the Delta variant on the Boundary yet.”
While no COVID protocols such as mask mandates or limited capacities for businesses and/or events have been issued as of press time, Dr. Bunio did state, “We expect any decisions about mask mandates and closures to be guided by the data and evolving science around the transmissibility and severity of the new variants of concern. Currently, wearing a mask when in a crowded area should provide added protection for those still unvaccinated. We are seeing a few cases of COVID in those who are fully vaccinated but fortunately the vaccine has helped keep these people from becoming seriously ill. With that in mind even those fully vaccinated may decide to gain an extra layer of protection when in crowded spaces where they do not know the health or vaccination status of those around them.”
Secretary Bradley added, “We always base our recommendations on the science and look to the subject matter experts, such as the CDC, to determine our next course of action for implementing mitigation measures. What we do know is that getting the vaccine is the most important step in reducing the risk of infection.”
She said it is important to talk about the vaccine in the community. “Right now, we have a significant amount of people that are not vaccinated in our community. We know that the majority of positive cases in this country are now the Delta variant. We know that this variant has the potential to cause more serious illness. We know that our community has a high disease burden of other chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. We also know that because of all of these things, we are at a much greater risk of being sicker if we contract COVID and have a much greater risk of dying. These are not scare tactics. They are simply truths based on scientific data. We know that if we take the vaccine, this greatly reduces the chance of getting the virus and even if we get it, our likelihood of serious illness, hospitalization, or death is greatly reduced.”
Secretary Bradley encourages people not vaccinated to speak with people they trust about the shot. “Talk to your primary care team, your pharmacist, a public health nurse, or other health professionals about your concerns. Also, talk to others that have gotten the vaccine and ask them why they chose to get vaccinated. More importantly, talk to someone that has had COVID or lost a loved one from COVID and ask them if they would get the vaccine. If you’ve already had the COVID infection, CDC guidance strongly recommends that you get vaccinated. It gives you longer lasting and better protection needed to conquer the variants.”
She said the Tribe needs almost 3,500 more community members to receive the vaccination so “herd immunity” can be reached.
“At herd immunity level, we would feel much more confident about continuing to endorse activities and events that are perceived as “business as usual” in our own communities. We still encourage everyone, vaccinated and unvaccinated to do the things that work, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and practicing good hygiene when you are around others that are not fully vaccinated.”