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Tribal council, county commission discuss COVID-19

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FLATHEAD RESERVATION – Local officials discussed the COVID-19 virus on the Flathead Reservation during a July 13 Zoom call that included the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ tribal council, a variety of public health employees, Lake County commissioners and the county attorney, along with members of the public.

Tribal council chairwoman Shelly Fyant proposed four measures for curbing the spread of the virus: a mask mandate, checkpoints to assess people’s health, a required 14-day quarantine of those coming from out of state and a curfew. By the end of the meeting, the county had not agreed outright to any of those requests, but Commissioner Bill Barron said he would look into the legality of some of the requests, issue a joint letter with the tribe and other groups to encourage the use of masks, and encourage city officials to implement changes. 

Lake County and CSKT are working together through the Unified Command Center to fight COVID-19; however, the two governments have taken different approaches when it comes to resuming normal activity as the pandemic continues. While the county has followed state directives on re-opening, CSKT has not yet lifted its shelter-in-place order. 

CSKT has placed restrictions on the tribal government, associated businesses and on tribal land, but the tribe is unable to enforce prevention measures on land or roads managed by the county. At the meeting, CSKT officials asked county commissioners to join them in announcing and enforcing more stringent prevention measures across the county to protect all residents of Lake County and the Flathead Reservation. 

“We can’t do anything without the county and the cities as a joint effort,” Fyant said. “Enforcement would be ridiculous.”

Other tribal governments in the state, including the Blackfeet Nation, have instated mask mandates, curfews and business closure orders. 

Lake County Attorney Steve Eschenbacher said he thought there could be problems with the legality of health checkpoints but that a nighttime curfew could be legal. He also said that city governments could implement mask mandates but that the county was unable to do so legally. Governor Steve Bullock issued a mask directive for the state on July 15. 

Barron said the commission would issue public statements in support of masks because the commission agreed that masks give people “a huge comfort.” He said the county commission had not yet issued a statement or directive about mask use. “The commission has not come out on masks because there are feelings among the three of us on how necessary they are and how much they help,” Barron said. According to the Mayo Clinic, numerous scientific studies confirm that masks used along with other preventive measures do reduce the spread of the coronavirus. 

In recent weeks, the number of COVID-19 cases has spiked in Lake County, and community spread has been confirmed. Tribal health professionals told county commissioners that without further efforts to prevent the spread of the virus, the pandemic would get worse in the area. Community health nurse and public health emergency preparedness coordinator Tammy Matt spoke about the issue.

“We are begging for help. We are sinking. We are drowning,” Matt said. “We need to take action now because if we wait another week we’re going to be in the hundreds for our numbers.”

Dr. Bernadette Corum, CSKT Tribal Health medical director said the Unified Command Center is doing contact tracing but that the recent spike in cases is on the verge of “overloading the system.”

Commissioner Gale Decker said he supported bolstering contact tracing and testing efforts, but that he was not worried about hospitals being overwhelmed because few local cases have required hospitalization. “We’re lucky that our positive cases have been young, healthy individuals,” he said.

Matt responded to the commissioner: “What’s going to happen when this gets into hospitals or nursing homes? We’re going to see death after death.”




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