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Coronavirus Cases Jump Among Wisconsin's Indigenous People

Jürgen Fälchle
Since Sept. 1, Wisconsin Native Americans have seen 1558 new confirmed COVID-19, a number which is concerning many Native communities.

Coronavirus cases among Native Americans in Wisconsin have tripled since Sept. 1 as the state continues to grapple with the pandemic.

The state Department of Health Services reported 59 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and one new death among Native Americans in Wisconsin on Wednesday. That raised the group's totals to 2,333 confirmed cases and 23 deaths since the pandemic began, a huge jump from the 775 confirmed cases among Wisconsin Native Americans since Sept. 1.

“The numbers are outrageous,” Shannon Holsey, president of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican tribe, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It’s scary.”

The figures include Native Americans who live on reservations and those who live elsewhere.

“The disease is catching up with everybody now,” said German Gonzalez, director of the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Epidemiology Center. “It was just a matter of time.”

The virus has been spreading unchecked in Wisconsin since September. As of Wednesday, the state was fourth in the nation in new cases per capita with 756 cases per 100,000 people. State health officials reported 3,413 new cases and 22 more deaths on Thursday. The state has now seen 186,100 cases and 1,703 deaths since the pandemic reached Wisconsin in March. Nearly 2 million people in the state have been tested for the disease.

The Wisconsin Hospital Association reported Thursday that 1,230 people were hospitalized with the virus across the state, a new record. Nearly 330 people were in intensive care.

The COVID-19 spike in Indian country occurred even though each of Wisconsin's 11 tribes have enacted orders aimed at stemming the outbreak. The orders included closing casinos, limiting access to some reservations, safer-at-home rules and curfews. Some tribes have also limited or banned visitors to nursing homes and have been delivering food and medical supplies to the elderly.

“The tribes were extremely, extremely cautious,” said Matthew Dellinger, an epidemiologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin and a co-investigator at the Great Lakes Native American Research Center for Health.

Through the summer, several tribes reported just modest impacts thanks to the location of the tribes in remote areas and protective measures. The numbers in Indian country started jumping in the fall, when cases started skyrocketing throughout northern Wisconsin.

“The numbers would be a lot worse if the tribes didn’t take ... the measures that they have,” said Thomas Boelter, administrator of health and wellness for the Forest County Potawatomi.

Of particular concern is the high rate of risk factors such as diabetes, heart disease and asthma among Native Americans.

“A lot of my tribal members have compromised immune systems,” Boelter said. “Thank the Creator it hasn’t been worse than it is.”

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce group, which represents a wide swath of businesses, sent La Crosse County officials a letter Thursday demanding they withdraw an order limiting the size of indoor public gatherings. The county issued an edict on Friday limiting indoor public gatherings to 25% of capacity or 10 people in places without capacity limits.

The La Crosse order mirrors statewide limits on public indoor gatherings that Gov. Tony Evers’ administration implemented earlier this month. The Tavern League of Wisconsin has challenged that order in court. A Barron County judge upheld the limits last week. The Tavern League has appealed.

WMC said in the letter to La Crosse County that the limits would hurt businesses and argued that county officials lacked the legal authority to impose them. County Administrator Steve O'Malley said he doesn't agree with WMC's claim that county officials exceeded his authority. He noted that WMC put out a news release about the letter but didn't engage directly with county officials, which he said shows the group simply wants to make a point.

During a teleconference with reporters Thursday afternoon, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers blamed the spread on Republicans, accusing them of undermining his administration's message to avoid gatherings and to wear masks. He criticized President Donald Trump for minimizing the pandemic and telling the country that it's turned the corner on the disease.

“We need consistent communication from our leaders and we're not getting it,” the governor said.

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