Nooksack artist and entrepreneur Louie Gong in eight days did what the federal government couldn’t manage since the first death from coronavirus was confirmed on Feb. 29 in Washington state: he sourced and supplied thousands of masks to protect health workers at the Seattle Indian Health Board.
Gong gave the health board 4,000 N95 respirator masks, 6,000 surgical masks and 300 face shields Friday. Gong estimates the equipment alone was worth about $13,000, but it was his quick action and knowledge of suppliers in China that turned out to be priceless.
At a time when the federal government’s response to the coronavirus has been frustratingly slow, the board and its allies have stepped in and up to solve their needs for themselves, said Esther Lucero, CEO of the health board.
The board serves about 6,000 people in King County and specializes in the care of Indian and Alaska Native people, who face greater risk during the pandemic because of overall lower health status, including respiratory problems.
Gong knew he could help source personal protective equipment. The CEO of Pike Place Market store Eighth Generation, he contacted suppliers with whom he has relationships in China. Gong sold the store to the Snoqualmie Tribe last November but is still involved with the business.
“I’m happy today. It’s a lot of masks,” Gong said by phone as he loaded up the gear in a van for delivery.
“We were able to able to identify where the masks were and expedite import because of our existing relationship with the manufacturer,” Gong said. “The biggest take-away for me is it is so important for people of color to develop their business capacity. So that in circumstances like this, we don’t have to wait for the federal government or that next grant cycle to do something for us.”
The health board has been trying for two months to get the equipment it needs but has yet to receive any from the feds, Lucero said.
“It’s infuriating,” Lucero said. “But if I put my energy there, I will not be following my Navajo teaching, which is to always look in a positive direction.”
When the Federal Emergency Management Agency offered virus test kits but insisted on red tape and unsuitable conditions, the board instead partnered with Public Health – Seattle & King County, accepting its offer of 200 tests.
The health board needed scrubs for workers administering screening and testing.
“So we mobilized, and in one day we had 100 sets donated,” Lucero said. Then the executive team took the scrubs home and washed them for the staff.
To help keep its staff and patients safe, the board has implemented telemedicine services, while also maintaining a walk-in clinic for people without computer or phone access.
The board also offers virus testing services at the Chief Seattle Club, which serves American Indian and Alaska Native people, including those experiencing homelessness.
“I am so proud of our organization and our people,” Lucero said. “We are able to make these adaptations to be here to serve our people. This is how our community stands together. The way we are able to make this work is through innovation and commitment.”
Health care for Native people has been chronically underfunded by the federal government, despite promises to provide health services and education as part of the treaties with the U.S. under which tribes ceded their lands.
More than $2 million in affordable housing funds will be distributed among Washington’s 29 federally recognized tribes as part of the COVID-19 relief package approved by Congress, and can be used by tribes to prevent, prepare for and respond to the coronavirus.
The Indian Health Service reported nearly 200 cases of COVID-19 in Indian Country as of Friday. Of those, almost 10% are in Washington state.
Tribal governments across the state also have been economically hurt because of the shutdown of tribal casinos. The closures will continue until May 4 to honor Gov. Jay Inslee’s extension of the statewide stay-home order. “We will stay closed consistent with the state,” wrote W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and chairman of the Washington Indian Gaming Association, in an email. “We’re committed with the governor to defeat the COVID-19.”
The casinos fund essential tribal government programs and provide revenue to rural tribes that don’t have casinos but rent machines to the tribes that do.
“The COVID-19 crisis has caused an immense blow to the Tribes and our business operations,” Allen said. “Tribes have become very dependent on new revenue sources from gaming, hotels and other business enterprises to meet needs and fill significant funding gaps from the federal and state governments. The shutdown and forced layoffs have been very challenging for our employees and our ability to care for our community, families and elders.”
Tribal casinos are the largest employers in many communities, including the Snoqualmie Casino, the closest to Seattle. The casino remains closed, but the tribe is still helping out.
“The tribe is doing everything it can to support the community through this crisis, from providing food to food banks, to continuing to keep our staff on payroll and maintaining their health benefits,” wrote Snoqualmie Tribal Chairman Robert De Los Angeles in an email. “We take our role as a tribal government and as an employer very seriously and we are very fortunate to be able to support our community in a variety of ways.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story published last year misidentified the tribal affiliation of Esther Lucero.