COMMENTARY: Seeing Red      

by Jul 22, 2022OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


How have you been? Have you avoided getting COVID-19? If you haven’t, did you recover? Do you have lasting effects? Was your encounter with the virus life-threatening or more like a cold or flu?

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Public Health and Human Services Division has been diligent in providing statistics to let us know how many of us have been infected and affected by COVID-19. They have also made certain that we know where to test, how to vaccinate, and who should vaccinate. The COVID-19 dashboard that PHHS created is one of the most comprehensive reports to the community that we receive from any department.

In case you have an aversion to graphs, here are a few of the stats. Since the start of the pandemic, our health department has reported a total of 32 deaths, 3,851 recoveries and 3,932 positive tests on individuals using hospital or tribal health services. This is as of July 20, 2022. It also conveys that our hard-working health providers have given a total of 26,428 shots to combat the pandemic.

And therein lies a question. Are we still in a pandemic? Too some, that may sound like a stupid question. After all, we are still being issued statistics on the impact and that data includes current information on the number of active cases. This latest report announced that we have had 53 new positives for COVID-19 since July 13.

This report also stated that the COVID-19 Risk Level is Red. In July 2020, Dr. Bunio from the Cherokee Indian Hospital did a video segment answering questions about COVID-19 and the Tribal response. “The Chief rolled out the Tribal Dashboard and we now have COVID risk levels. There’s red, orange, yellow, and green. Obviously, green is as good as it gets, and red is trouble.”

In August 2020, in another edition of the question-and-answer videos, at a time when the Tribe was in Risk Level Red, Dr. Bunio stated in response to the question “What does this mean?”, Dr. Bunio replied, “We are seeing an increase in cases. We wanted to make sure that the community is aware. We are not changing a whole lot of our advice. We are just saying follow the three W’s like we have said before. One of the things we have to be particularly careful about is people getting a little stir crazy, cookouts, parties. I know people want to see their families and friends, but that is where we are seeing some of this spread. It’s those mass gatherings where we just can’t control things. We just can’t.

Later in the interview, the doctor was asked to explain the risk levels and when he got to red, he said, “But when you get to red, that is when you have to start thinking it is going in the wrong direction; is there something else we need to do? And I can’t say exactly what that should be. That is a decision for the leadership to make.”

The One Feather recently asked a representative in our health services if there were changes to the meanings of the COVID-19 Risk Levels and they indicated that there were not.

Now, a lot has happened in the past two years in the battle against COVID-19. The medical community has learned more about the virus, it’s ability to spread, durations of contact, strains, therapies, vaccines, etc. Looking from outside the medical community, an average community member, like me, would naturally assume that the risk of severe consequences from COVID-19 have been significantly reduced.

But the medical community has not changed the meaning of the risk levels. So, what do we take away from the current public response of the Tribe to COVID-19?

What do we glean from the current governmental and community response to Risk Level Red?

In the first week of August, we (the Tribe) will host the Talking Trees Children’s Trout Derby. The Derby brings in, on average, 1,800 children and at least one parent per child to the Oconaluftee Island Park. It is not uncommon to see whole families join their participating child, potentially ballooning the population on the Island to over 4,000 people. The Children’s Trout Derby is loud, fun, exciting, and CROWDED. Look at any of the pictures of previous Derbies and you will see community members and visitors from other states, shoulder-to-shoulder along the river on the Island Park. At least it is an outdoor event, but that won’t eliminate the risks of being in close contact with people from all walks of life and different ideas of what they should be doing to protect others from what they might potentially be carrying in their bodies.

In fact, the entire event schedule has resumed, except for those impacted by the closing of the Cherokee Indian Fairgrounds. Coming up in October is the Tribal social event of the year, the Cherokee Indian Fair. Family members from all over the U.S. and potentially world we come in to visit family and friends, and we are huggers. Curious tourists also inflate the number of guests we have for the Fair. Again, thousands in close contact. No mandates on distancing, masks, or closures are in place, like they were in the previous days of Risk Level Red, whether that is in public events or in the workplace.

And I am not saying that there should be. I just want the information that we get to reflect the reality. Let’s be consistent in our messaging.

We should be getting, as we did in the past, guidance from our medical and governmental leadership on how to be safe or at least safer as we go back out into the world where COVID-19 is less of a threat, but a threat non-the-less. Because if the Risk Level chart still means what it did in 2020, why are the protocols gone that were in place in 2020? Personally, I don’t think the threat is the same, but I am not a health professional, and I am not a tribal leader who determines what goes in place. Are we making a social decision to be done with COVID-19 because we are tired of it, even though, as Dr. Fauci (Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) stated recently, COVID-19 is not done with us? While we were in the heat of battle with COVID-19, it was stated multiple times that whatever the medical community told us to do to protect the community, that is the way we are going. Does the same hold true now?