Cherokee Nation Health Services finds innovative ways to serve in midst of COVID-19 pandemic

Every health care decision informed by medical science and compassion

Cherokee Nation remains on the front lines in battling this public health crisis. We have had great access to medications, testing and critical information throughout the pandemic. The tribe’s dedicated Cherokee Nation Health Services staff implemented cutting-edge telemedicine services to provide essential care to patients while keeping them safe. We found new and innovative ways to continue providing health care in challenging circumstances. Our team of committed medical professionals and courageous first responders served our communities and citizens in the midst of the most dangerous outbreak in modern history. We not only worked harder, but we worked smarter, and at every turn Cherokee Nation has been guided by scientific data and compassion. The COVID vaccine rollout is in full swing, and the tribal government has prioritized elders, Cherokee speakers and front-line health care professionals and first responders.

Medical science, facts and compassion

The Cherokee Nation’s fight against COVID-19 and the tribe’s ongoing recovery initiatives have been at the forefront of government and health care services throughout Indian Country

The Cherokee Nation has been a leader among government agencies and health care services throughout Indian Country, fighting from the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic to slow and stop the spread of the virus among Cherokee communities and to provide Cherokee families with the assistance they need to recover from the greatest health crisis in generations.

Medical science, facts and compassion have always been at the heart of the policies and procedures enacted by Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. and Deputy Chief Bryan Warner in response to COVID-19, a virus that is particularly dangerous to Native American elders and those with severe, long-lasting chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, lung disease and diabetes.

“We now know that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Native Americans have had the highest hospitalization rates due to COVID-19 when compared to other ethnic groups across the United States,” Chief Hoskin said. “Although we could not have known that this would be the case when the virus was first reported, the Cherokee Nation’s commitment to relying on medical science, facts and compassion from Day 1 allowed us to do everything within our means to slow and stop community spread. This approach also allowed us to provide assistance to Cherokee citizens across the world who were impacted by this pandemic, while implementing processes to protect the most vulnerable among us, including our Cherokee speakers.”

Amid growing concerns about the inevitable spread of COVID-19 to the U.S. in early 2020, Chief Hoskin’s administration began to hold proactive planning meetings with Cherokee Nation Health Services, Cherokee Nation Facilities, the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service and Cherokee Nation Emergency Management.

“Like much of the country, we were watching the news reports about the spread of the coronavirus from around the world in January and February of 2020,” said Chief of Staff Todd Enlow. “We began to ask ourselves: What is this going to look like? It was different than anything we’d ever had to respond to. We knew we would have to adapt quickly and overcome, so that’s what we began to focus on.”

Oklahoma’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported on March 6, 2020. That same day, the Cherokee Nation’s new COVID-19 call center went online to provide Cherokee citizens with answers to their questions about the emerging threats posed by the coronavirus.

The Cherokee Nation also canceled a number of events throughout northeast Oklahoma and around the country to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Sequoyah High School, the Cherokee Immersion Charter School and Cherokee Nation Head Start centers also closed. Tribal services transitioned to virtual and mail-in operations, and government employees began working from home. For the first time ever, Cherokee Nation Entertainment casinos and hotels also temporarily suspended operations.

“Our first priority in March and April as COVID-19 began to sweep through our country was making sure our citizens, employees and patrons were safe and cared for during the pandemic,” said Deputy Chief Bryan Warner. “Being proactive was critical to our mission and we remained vigilant in our response, which had to be adapted along the way. Looking back on everything we’ve faced since March of 2020, I am reminded of just how blessed we are as a tribal nation to have the best employees. Their dedication and determination allowed us to adapt our routines to best serve Cherokees during the health crisis. We did everything within our power to stay a step ahead of this virus, and our efforts led the way on a local, state and national level. Other leaders have consistently looked to the Cherokee Nation for guidance on how to best weather this storm, and I think that speaks highly of the men and women of Cherokee Nation who worked, and continue to work, on the front lines.”

To keep Cherokee citizens informed, the tribe developed public-service announcements in both Cherokee and English, encouraging the public to wear a face mask, avoid traveling, wash their hands often and practice social distancing by staying at least 6 feet away from other people – all based on guidance from medical experts.

In spite of those efforts, on March 24, 2020, Cherokee Nation Health Services reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Cherokee Nation health system.

“Because we took a proactive stance on the spread of COVID-19, Cherokee Nation health care professionals were prepared to respond when our first confirmed COVID-19 case was discovered. We were also able to take every available precaution to ensure our Cherokee citizens affected by the virus were protected and had access to the best health care in Indian Country,” Chief Hoskin said. “Our Public Health team’s contact tracing efforts have been a model example for others, and by implementing that initiative we have successfully cut down on the risk of community spread and infection. There is no doubt that these efforts saved countless lives.”

Chief Hoskin declared a State of Emergency in the Cherokee Nation on March 16, 2020 due to COVID-19.

COVID-19 testing efforts were also front and center as the tribe sought to provide accessible, safe testing opportunities for citizens. The tribe’s first drive-through COVID testing occurred at the Cherokee Nation Vinita Health Center in mid-April, and soon after, all Cherokee Nation health centers around the Cherokee Nation reservation began offering the same services.

The tribe also expanded its use of telemedicine and teledentistry, providing patients with opportunities for safe, routine medical care through face-to-face videoconferencing with providers.

“The Cherokee Nation has not experienced a health crisis of this magnitude in many generations, but Deputy Chief Warner and I knew we had to find a way to continue providing critical services to Cherokee citizens,” Chief Hoskin said. “Just as Cherokees have always done, we were able to adapt to our concerns by finding innovative ways to provide those services to our citizens, like using telemedicine and providing drive-through testing. We couldn’t have accomplished this without the thousands of Cherokee Nation employees who stood beside us and led those efforts. I am proud of each and every one of them for their service to the Cherokee people.”