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How The Cherokee Nation Is Battling COVID-19

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The first person in Oklahoma to die from the coronavirus was a member of the Cherokee Nation. That was back in March. For a people who were almost once wiped out by disease, it was a call to action. While the federal government was struggling to respond, tribal leaders quickly instituted a mask mandate, stocked up on PPE and started aggressive contact tracing. Today, Oklahoma is seeing record numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths. But the Cherokee Nation has managed to limit its spread, even as other Native Americans have suffered disproportionately. Joining us now is Lisa Pivec. She's the senior director of public health for the Cherokee Nation Health Services. Good morning, Lisa.

LISA PIVEC: Good morning.

MCCAMMON: How big of a challenge is that for you to contain a virus, you know, over such a large area and that you don't have total control over what's happening in some of those parts of it?

PIVEC: It's very, very challenging. It's overwhelming. But with the support of Chief Hoskin and all of the work that he has done, we've amazingly done well. Being able to put mask mandates in place for the places that we do have control over is a sign of leadership, too. It's a leadership message to all of our citizens about what they can do personally.

MCCAMMON: And your department started taking some of these steps to prevent COVID spread early on back in February. What were you seeing at that time that others apparently were not seeing?

PIVEC: We were anticipating what the coasts were seeing, and we were thinking that would get here quicker. So being resourceful and having survived many challenges in our history, we knew that we had to act quickly and be ready. So we started looking into what the mitigation measures would be for our area that did not involve pharmaceuticals. We knew there was really not a lot that you could do clinically once someone contracted the virus, but we knew that you could help keep people from contracting it. And so we started looking at those nonpharmaceutical interventions.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, and what did those interventions look like on your reservation? How'd you roll them out?

PIVEC: The first things that we did were more along the line of stay-at-home-type orders, sending our workforce, the most vulnerable of our workforce, to work from home, putting in mask mandates pretty fairly early for certain areas. We also started screening at the doors.

MCCAMMON: As you know, in many states, governors have seen pushback against these kinds of rules against mask mandates and stay-at-home orders and so forth. Did you have that struggle at all with getting your residents to cooperate?

PIVEC: I would say it was a bit of a learning curve for everyone. But I do believe that once people began to take the virus more seriously, then they began to embrace that more. We still see people that are resistant to it across all of Oklahoma and across the United States, as you know. But any time that you meet with the chief, any Cherokee Nation buildings, any Cherokee Nation property, there's no question that you must have on a mask.

MCCAMMON: Your state's governor, Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, opposes a statewide mask mandate. Has that hurt your efforts to contain and control the virus on the reservation?

PIVEC: Oh, I would say yes. Leadership matters. And when you have a leader who makes decisions that are not rooted in science and that are not rooted in what's best for everyone, then that does impact anyone that lives in that area. So when you have a leader at that level say that a mask mandate won't help or doesn't matter, or you shouldn't care, then lots of people are going to listen and believe that.

MCCAMMON: Based on what you've learned through this experience, what advice would you have for state and federal leaders?

PIVEC: My advice for state and federal leaders is to take out the idea that this virus is partisan and to understand that these are real people suffering and that we have to come together as one people. We have to think about others. And that's something that Cherokees do. And that's how we live is collectively and understanding that what we do and how we live impacts others. Don't ask, what are my rights? Ask, what are my responsibilities?

MCCAMMON: Lisa Pivec runs the public health department for the Cherokee Nation. Thanks so much, Lisa.

PIVEC: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.