The dangerous COVID-19 virus continues to spread across the world, and now it has officially reached Cherokee Nation. A Cherokee citizen in Tulsa County was the first identified death from the virus in Oklahoma, and additional cases have been identified within our health system.
As Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, this threat to our citizens has my full attention. I will do all that I can to protect Cherokees, our workers and our communities. My administration, Deputy Chief Bryan Warner, the Council of the Cherokee Nation and the management team at Cherokee Nation Businesses are actively evaluating the crisis and taking actions to put safety first.
In every decision we make, we are guided by our commitment to protecting our people while ensuring the continuance of tribal services. In concert with our Emergency Management department, we have activated our Emergency Operations plan. I’d like to elaborate a bit about what that means.
Cherokee Nation and Cherokee Nation Businesses are working with community groups and volunteers to get needed food and other supplies to elders. As we work to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our Cherokee communities, protecting the nearly 3,000 Cherokee first-language speakers is a special priority. We’ve established a hotline for our Cherokee first-language speakers to share information about preventing the spread of COVID-19 and to provide help if they need food, medications or other essentials. We have produced safety videos and printed materials in both Cherokee and English to distribute to our citizens.
Another priority is keeping our children and families healthy, especially now that it has been proposed to close public schools for the remainder of the semester. Sequoyah High School is now offering free "grab and go" breakfasts and lunches Monday through Friday to any child under 18. All children are welcome, whether or not they are tribal citizens.
We have redistributed the food from shuttered Cherokee Nation Businesses hotels and casinos to our local communities. This takes a lot of hands to accomplish.
At our Cherokee Nation health facilities, we have rescheduled all non-emergency appointments for optometry, dental, audiology, radiology, physical therapy and elective surgery. When possible, prescriptions have been extended from 30- to 90-day supplies.
We have eliminated as many face-to-face visits as possible and encouraged patients to use our pharmacy convenience options such as drive-through, online refills, phone ordering and mail delivery. This avoids hundreds of trips away from home to visit a health center.
We have made temporary policy changes across the Cherokee Nation that allow tribal citizens to conduct their business with our staff over the phone, mail or online. Additionally, we’ve ramped up telemedicine access, and we are fast-tracking new telemedicine practices to continue to serve patients while protecting medical staff.
Cherokee Nation Health Services is following the current evidence-based guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prioritize testing for COVID-19 to high-risk patients. Preserving limited testing resources for our most vulnerable patients is essential until more tests become available. Like other health systems around us, we are working with our partners in federal and state agencies to bring more testing and additional resources to bear as quickly as we can.
Finally, Cherokee Nation continues to advocate with the U.S. Congress to ensure that tribal governments are included in COVID-19 stimulus packages.
We continue to monitor this pandemic closely and evaluate our next steps. It is more important than ever to stay connected with one another. Yet, we must do so safely. The most effective way to protect yourself and others is to stay at home, if at all possible. As we work through this unprecedented time, I want each of you to know that the health and safety of Cherokee families remains my highest priority.
Together, we will get through this.
Chuck Hoskin Jr.