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Mass Testing And A Closed Border: How The Eastern Band Have Responded To COVID-19

Courtesy of Cherokee Indian Hopsital Authority
Principal Chief Richard Sneed gets tested for COVID-19 at a drive-thru testing site.

  As a sovereign nation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have been able to respond to COVID-19 differently than its neighbors in Western North Carolina. BPR spoke with tribal members and officials about how they are handling the health crisis:


When Jade Teesateskie got tested for COVID-19 she had no symptoms of the virus.  


“I volunteered to go get tested showing no symptoms at all and still have not had any symptoms to this day,” says Teesateskie, who is 26 years old. 


Teesateskie did test positive however, and was the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Graham County. She lives in Robbinsville and is part of the Snowbird community. Because she is a member of the Eastern Band she was tested by the Cherokee Indian Hospital, which only serves tribal members. 


Unlike many county health departments, the Cherokee Hospital will run a COVID-19 test on any volunteer, regardless of symptoms. 


“You know I do think that the best practice would be to test everybody. Because especially in cases like mine - where you are showing no symptoms - you would have no idea,” says Teesateskie.


Chief Medical Director at Cherokee Hospital Richard Bunio says their strategy is to test at least one person per household. So far, the hospital has tested over 1,400 people. So far there have been just 9 positive results and 5 “presumptive positives.” That means that the hospital has tested more people and had fewer positive cases than most surrounding counties. 


These numbers include non-tribal members in surrounding counties such as Jackson and Swain who might have been in contact with people on the boundary.  


“We wanted to be able to test anybody that was on tribal lands and potentially a risk,” says Bunio.  


The hospital set up drive-thru testing on the Qualla Boundary as well as offering testing to tribal communities in Graham and Cherokee Counties. 


Cherokee Indian Hospital CEO Casey Cooper says they also reassigned around 150 staff members to help with testing and contact tracing. 


“We reached out to the counties and we said, 'Hey, you know, we've got the test kits available, we've got the manpower to do the test and we're going to do mass testing and we are not going to pass the burden on to you for contact tracing,'” says Cooper. He explained that when they first came up with these plans the tribe didn’t have enough PPE or testing kits. But they were able to receive supplies from the Indian Health Service and Dogwood Health Trust. 


The testing and aggressive contact tracing went along with the decision to close the borders of the Qualla Boundary to all non-tribal residents and non-essential workers starting in March. 


We felt like that, because we are a small community and because we have fairly defined borders and because of our sovereignty, we were well positioned to implement measures that were consistent with international best practices,” says Cooper. 


Principal Chief Richard Sneed explains that when they enacted the Qualla Boundary border closure there was no statewide stay-at-home order in North Carolina. 


“When I looked at the modeling, I mean, the decision  was easy,” says Sneed. 


The Eastern Band has about 16,000 members, and a big concern has been keeping its elders safe.  There are less than 200 fluent speakers of the Cherokee language in the tribe.  Since the elderly are more vulnerable to the virus, Sneed says there’s a real fear they could lose more of their culture. 


“The most vulnerable are the elderly and people with compromised immune systems so family members realize how important that is and it's been great to see the extra care that people are taking with our tribal elders,” says Sneed. 


Tourism is the largest industry for the Eastern Band, in particular the two Harrah’s Cherokee Casinos.  Both have been closed since mid-March.  That means a big dip in revenue for the tribe. Sneed says the Eastern Band is preparing for the future. 

“Even when the economy is switched back on, it's not as if all of a sudden it's going to go back to how it was a month ago, two months ago or three months ago,” says Sneed. 


The federal government announced this week that $4.8 billion in relief funds will be dispersed to Native American tribes.


As Governor Roy Cooper announced that Phase 1 of reopening North Carolina will start this Friday evening, Sneed announced that the Qualla Boundary will also begin to reopen the same day. Traffic will be allowed through the boundary and the curfew will end Friday night at 10. 


Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.