'A Devastating Blow': Virus Kills 81 Members of Native American Tribe

Mitzi Reed, the tribe's director of wildlife and parks who lost her grandmother and uncle to the coronavirus this summer in Choctaw, Miss., September 7, 2020. (Rory Doyle / The New York Times)
CHOCTAW, miss. - For Jason Grisham it started with a fever. Then came the chills, persistent headaches, and a terrible realization of what the symptoms could mean.
By that time, in early April, only a handful of residents of his Native American tribe in central Mississippi had tested positive for the coronavirus. But within a few days, 40-year-old Grisham would be joining a list that has only grown astonishingly longer.
Soon his wife and eldest daughter would be sick too. All three would survive, but the falls would break through the Mississippi gang of Choctaw Indians unabated, which would eventually sicken more than 10% of the tribe's 10,000 residents and kill at least 81 people.
“We were prepared; We kept wearing our masks and always using hand sanitizer because the last thing we wanted was for the virus to be in our house, ”said Grisham's wife, Kendall Grisham, 39.
Several residents died that month. 30 people were killed in May. Another 33 in June. The toll rose all summer.
"It was a devastating blow to our people," said Cyrus Ben, the tribal chief who also had the virus.
Last month, Neshoba County, where most of the tribe's residents live, had the highest per capita death rate in Mississippi from the coronavirus, according to the New York Times. And although they make up 18% of the county's population, tribal members have caused more than half of the county's virus cases and about 64% of its deaths.
"We're not just losing family members or an aunt or uncle. We're losing parts of our culture," said Mary Harrison, interim health director of the Choctaw Health Center. We have lost artists, elders who are very fluent in our language. So when you think of someone we have lost, they are important people in our church. "
The Choctaw are the only officially recognized tribe in the state. Spread across eight parishes on 35,000 acres, the members are among the hardest hit in the state - like many other tribal nations in the United States.
The largest reservation in the country, the Navajo Nation has recorded at least 560 deaths - a number higher than coronavirus-related deaths in 13 states and a higher death rate than any state.
While color communities have been disproportionately affected by the virus, it appears to be particularly deadly in some tribal nations where poverty, multi-generational housing, and underlying health conditions like diabetes and heart disease have contributed to it.
In Arizona, Indians account for 11% of virus-related deaths, despite making up 5% of the population. And in Wyoming, Indians caused nearly 30% of coronavirus deaths.
In all tribal states, the pandemic has forced the closure of casinos, schools and in some cases the roads leading to reservations, changing daily life and causing much economic havoc. In eastern Mississippi, the Choctaw tribe are one of the largest employers. It owns a popular resort with two casinos that employ about 2,400 people, about half of whom are tribal.
The casino resort complex, which was one of the first to offer sports betting in the Indian country, was closed in March due to the pandemic. It has only now started to slowly open up again.
Long before the coronavirus, the Indian health service, the government program that provides medical care to the country's 2.2 million members of the country's tribal communities, was plagued by a lack of funding and care, a shortage of doctors and nurses, too few hospital beds and aging facilities.
Now, the pandemic has exposed these weaknesses like never before, which has contributed to the disproportionately high rates of infection and death among Native Americans and has sparked new anger over what critics say Congress and successive governments have neglected in Washington for decades.
Hospitals waited months for protective equipment, some of which had expired, and had far too few beds and ventilators to handle the flood of COVID-19 patients. The agency failed to align health counseling in impoverished reservations with the realities of life and did little to collect comprehensive data on hospital stays, mortality rates, and tests to help tribes identify and respond to outbreaks.
In June, with deaths mounting in Choctaw communities, the tribal leader asked the Indian Health Service's critical response team to support the Choctaw Health Center.
The Critical Care Response Team - consisting of a doctor, two intensive care nurses and a respiratory therapist - arrived at the Choctaw Health Center in mid-June and stayed for more than three weeks.
Since the pandemic began, the 20-bed hospital on the reservation has lost at least four employees to the virus.
Hospital officials said they believed the first coronavirus case that a Choctaw member was involved in was in mid-March when a member signed him while working off the reservation.
From there the falls started to snow.
Access to testing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's ever-evolving guidelines on how to deal with the virus, and lack of manpower and supplies were early obstacles that tribal health workers faced. At that time, the mortality rate was high.
“With the initial surge, people were scared. They didn't know what to expect, ”said Dr. Kerry Scott, Interim Chief Medical Officer at Choctaw Health Center. "There were a large number of our patients with severe symptoms, so the death rate was slightly higher than expected."
Among those deaths were Nyron and Veronica Thomas. Her son Bryce Thomas had to bury his parents a few weeks before graduating from high school.
"Bryce Thomas was about to graduate from Neshoba Central High School with his parents," a family friend wrote on a GoFundMe page to raise funds for the teenager. "Instead, he has to bury both of his parents because of the corona virus."
In July, Ben, the Choctaw tribal chief, issued an executive order requiring all ages 2 and over to wear a mask. That same month, the Neshoba County Fair and Choctaw Indian Fair, both of which are major tourist attractions, were canceled.
After more than 60 deaths in Choctaw in the first few months of summer, the numbers appeared to be stabilizing. One tribe member died in August and another in September.
However, so far this month, two members have died after contracting the virus. The residents were rattling and preparing for a second wave.
Among those is Mitzi Reed, 45, who works as the tribe's wildlife and parks director who lost her grandmother and uncle to the coronavirus this summer.
"It wasn't possible to see them, which really took its toll," said Reed. "Because my mother is up there in her old age, we didn't attend the funerals."
In a culture where mourning is communal - with a tradition of vigils that lasts an average of two days - it has struck tribal members deeply not to be able to properly mourn the deceased, Ben said.
"You say goodbye," he said, "but it is a wound that must never really heal."
This article originally appeared in the New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company

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