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Virus spread forces lockdown on Montana tribal reservation

by Iris Samuels
| August 7, 2020 4:32 PM

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The Crow Tribe in Montana ordered its members to lock down for two weeks beginning Friday as tribal leaders moved to slow a sharp spike in coronavirus cases and deaths on yet another reservation in the country.

Crow Tribe Chairman Alvin Not Afraid said the lockdown is necessary because a stay-at-home order in effect since mid-March has been ineffective.

“We cannot afford to risk our future and the risks are just too great for the Crow people,” Not Afraid said.

Big Horn County, where the reservation is located, is on pace to record more confirmed virus cases in August than the previous two months combined. The county reported 85 new cases during the first week of August, compared to 249 in July and 44 in June.

Seven of its 12 confirmed virus deaths have been recorded in the past 10 days.

The figures include cases on the reservation but the tribe doesn’t publicly release case counts.

Native Americans have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 across the country, with major outbreaks from Arizona to South Dakota triggering similar lockdowns. The Navajo Nation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah has tallied 468 confirmed deaths from the virus and has ordered another lockdown this weekend.

In Montana, Native Americans make up 7% of residents but have seen 15% of confirmed virus cases and 36% of deaths as of July 26, the state says.

The Crow Tribe lockdown includes a nightly curfew between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. that will remain in effect until Aug. 21. Essential businesses and emergency medical facilities will be allowed to remain open, but all other public gatherings will be banned.

The tribe also said it would implement checkpoints to monitor non-resident traffic and inform non-residents that they must leave the reservation that covers more than 3,500 square miles (9,100 square kilometers) in southeastern Montana, most of it in Big Horn County.

The order requires all school students to remain at home until the administration determines it is safe for students to re-enter school. The school year in Montana is set to begin in three weeks.

Big Horn County officials said 3% of the county’s population has been infected with the virus, more than three times the rate in the second-most impacted county in Montana.

One-fifth of Native Americans who contract the virus in Montana require hospitalization, compared to only 10% of people who identify as white, according to the state.

County officials said the reservation’s single hospital has limited resources, which could mean some COVID-19 patients might need to seek care outside the reservation.

Many Native American families live in multi-generational homes, putting older and more vulnerable people at a greater risk of developing serious symptoms, county spokeswoman Rhonda Johnson said.

The virus is also spreading rapidly in the county because many residents of the reservation go on long drives together and cannot maintain social distancing, Johnson said. She also said large gatherings, involving family reunions and sporting events, have been occurring despite the stay-at-home order.

The vast majority of people who are diagnosed with COVID-19 recover. For some people it causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough.

In northern Montana, Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation confirmed two COVID-19 related deaths on Thursday. On Friday, tribal leaders announced a 72-hour shutdown on the reservation after a case was identified that they said could result in a cluster outbreak.

Chippewa Cree Tribe Chairman Harlan Baker said the shutdown will allow tracers to identify close contacts of the person in the new case.

“It’s a scary time for our people,” Baker said.


Iris Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.