The Menominee Nation Was Able to Keep Its COVID Numbers Low. Then Fatigue Set In.

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By christinalieffring

October 28, 2020

Health, community leaders say it’s becoming increasingly difficult for people to stay apart as pandemic presses on. 

On Sept. 1, there were 29 members of the Menominee Nation who had COVID-19. Fast-forward eight weeks and, as of Monday, the number of cases has jumped to 288.

In other words, in the span of two months, the Menominee Nation—which encompasses roughly 98% of Menominee County—saw its positivity rate climb from 1.4% to 8.3%, according to Wisconsin Department of Health Services data. 

Tribal Legislator Myrna Warrington said the outbreak didn’t come out of the blue.

“We knew that there was probably going to be a spike in September,” Warrington said. “Because people let their guard down.”

When the virus first reached Wisconsin, tribal leadership formed a command team headed by staff from the tribal clinic and legislators that met weekly to go over the data and implement measures to mitigate the spread of the virus. In March, they implemented a shutdown similar to Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order. 

“We mirrored some of the governor’s orders and then we instituted some of our own,” said Tribal Chairman Joan Delabreau. 

They established who would be considered essential personnel and had tribal members who reside in hot spots outside the reservation work from home. A curfew also was established from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Unlike the fights statewide against mask mandates, closures or capacity limits, Delabreau said most members of the tribe cooperate with the regulations.

“You’ve got to remember that Native American tribes struggle with a wide range of health issues,” Delabreau said, including high rates of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. “I think they saw the seriousness of [the virus] and adjusted to it.”

At first the tribe had limited access to testing. Test kits were distributed by the Indian Health Service, which is under the US Department of Health and Human Services. Some weeks the tribe would only receive about 18 or 24 test kits, another they’d receive 48 but Delabreau said, “you’d feel bad because you may have been affecting a different tribe.”

When testing expanded and the Wisconsin National Guard was deployed to conduct higher volumes of tests, Delabreau said the tribe saw that what they’d been doing had worked. One week in May they tested about 1,000 individuals, including tribal members who did not live on the reservation. Only one test came back positive and it was someone who was living in Green Bay. 

Seeing that the precautions they were taking were effective encouraged people to remain vigilant, Delabreau said.

“[People thought] ‘The actions that I am taking are keeping me and my family safe,’” said Delabreau. “That was a good part of why our numbers were low.”

Restrictions were loosened somewhat during the summer as the spread statewide slowed down. But as summer ended, Delabreau thinks people, particularly young people who assume they’ll have a less severe case if they are exposed, developed COVID fatigue. 

Warrington said some cases were spread when families decided to get together for dinners. 

“It’s really sad because to show your love for a person, you have to stay away from them,” Warrington said. “You can’t do that, you have to stay away. You have to be vigilant all the time.”

People started having larger get-togethers and attending events, such as a charity softball game and a large family wedding. Warrington and Delabreau also believe there may have also been some spread from neighboring Shawano County.

Many Menominee members live in Shawano or go there to go grocery shopping, get their cars repaired or run other errands. On Sept. 1., Shawano County had 279 positive cases out of 7,985 tested. Then Sept. 2 through Sept. 6, the county held its annual county fair. In early October a car show was held in conjunction with an open-air flea market. 

Shawano County Sheriff Adam Bieber said in April that he would not enforce Safer at Home and in July he said the same about Evers’ mask mandate, so Warrington said that while those large events were mainly held outdoors, which reduces the risk of spreading COVID-19, many were not wearing masks.  

By Monday, the number of people who had tested positive in Shawano County had jumped to 2,356 people out of 14,146 tested. 

Beyond the immediate health threat, Delabreau is also concerned about the long-term consequences of the pandemic. The tribe has had to close or limit its two largest sources of income: the casino and the mill. College of Menominee Nation is holding virtual classes but still generating less income from students being on campus.

She’s also worried about how COVID-19 is restricting access to primary care, particularly for patients with health conditions that require monitoring such as diabetes. School-age children are missing out on the social aspects of education and pre-school children who would normally attend daycare or Head Start could find themselves falling behind, she said.

“We’re going to have a generation who are going to be behind when they’re eligible to go to school,” she said. 

None of these issues can be addressed until the virus is under control. 

“We have to do what we need to do to keep our members safe,” Delabreau said. 

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