A new cluster of coronavirus cases detected by testing at the Lummi Nation has been traced to children playing together, tribal health officials said.
Sixteen new cases announced Wednesday through Friday by the Lummi health department bring the tribe’s total to 40 people infected. Before this outbreak, the reservation hadn’t had a new case in weeks.
“This hurts my heart,” Lawrence Solomon, chairman of the Lummi Indian Business Council, said in a Friday address to the Lummi people on Facebook. “I am deeply concerned. This is alarming information. I pray for our community to have the strength to stay strong in the fight against this deadly virus.”
Solomon also announced the council extended its stay-home order through May 31 and added a curfew from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. for residents of the reservation, which is near Bellingham.
“It is apparent that families and their children are not following the shelter-in-place order or practicing social distancing,” the tribe wrote in a Facebook post. “Part of this new cluster involves families visiting other households.”
Dr. Dakotah Lane, the Lummi Nation’s health director, said the start of the outbreak was first detected in a telemedicine interaction with a family in which the children had cold symptoms. All three children were subsequently tested for the virus and found to be infected. Contact tracing by Lummi health care personnel led to more possible cases, tests, and detection of infections.
Lane said the recent outbreak is a case study of a community prepared to deal with the virus by catching and containing it quickly. There is free health care for everyone. Tests are readily available with results the next day. And all aspects of the tribe’s health care system are integrated with a public-health response that includes contact tracing.
The health team also is working closely with the tribal government. As the outbreak was detected, Lummi housing staff posted flyers on the doors of homes on the reservation, reminding residents to stay home, and tribal leaders got on social media to reinforce the importance of physical distancing, Lane said.
After several weeks without new cases, people were becoming complacent, Lane said, something he has had to battle even in himself. But the virus never rests. “You feel things are going well, and then, boom, this happens,” he said.
The incident also shows how important access to health care, testing and contact tracing will be for Washington to open up, Lane said.
“It certainly makes me nervous. I don’t think the rest of Whatcom County or the rest of the state are doing as much testing as we are.
Lane said the outbreak was traced to some kids playing together; it couldn’t be determined where the initial infection came from that they passed around. It’s hard to tell kids to stay away from each other, he said.
“They naturally want to play. They are social, little, amazing beings that give us joy in life,” he said. “You go to any park, any public space, and you can see people interacting, and you can see kids interacting, too. It is just the nature of humans.” But with a pandemic afoot, that otherwise normal and healthy behavior is unsafe.
The tribe was among the first to enact a strict stay-home order, on March 22, to starve the virus of opportunities to spread. The tribe also took early steps to obtain testing supplies and educate its roughly 5,300 members about keeping apart.
But the order is particularly difficult in tribal communities in which gathering, particularly among generations of family members, is a deeply embedded way of life.
Solomon urged tribal members not to cast blame for the outbreak but to stand strong together — while staying apart. “It’s against our culture … but please continue to stay home.”
All the newly infected people were younger than 40, according to tribal health statistics: 44% were 19 or younger, 50% were in their 20s and 6% were in their 30s.
“All age groups can be affected,” the tribe’s health center wrote on Facebook.
People who tested positive for the virus have been ordered to self-quarantine, and tribal health officers are tracking their close contacts.
Since March, Lummi tribal health practitioners have tested 410 people. Of those, 368 tested negative, 40 tested positive and two had indeterminate results. In all, 21 people in the community who have tested positive for the virus have recovered.
The Lummi Nation is the third-largest tribe in Washington state, behind the Yakama and Colville tribes.
The Yakama Nation reservation is located practically in the heart of an infection hot spot, as Yakima County has reported the highest per capita rates of COVID-19 on the West Coast. The tribe has already lost three members to the virus, Yakama Tribal Council Executive Board Chairman Delano J. Saluskin wrote Friday in an address to the Yakama people on the tribe’s Facebook Page and published in the tribe’s newspaper, The Yakama Nation Review. A funeral was recently held for a leader of Celilo Village who is believed to have contracted the virus at a feast ceremony in the village longhouse.
“We all know the threat this virus poses, and yet, many ignore the advice of the medical professionals and our government,” Saluskin wrote. Testing has confirmed the virus is present in the tribe, which will continue to enforce its stay-home order “regardless of what the state does,” Saluskin stated.
Should the situation become more serious in Washington as the state opens up, the Lummi Nation has prepared. The tribe has set up an alternative health care facility with beds for patients in case the hospital becomes overwhelmed. “It’s ready to go,” Lane said. “I hope we never have to use it.”