Tribes Face COVID-19 With Limited Test Kits, Remote Staff, Lost Revenue

4:42 minutes

a sign that says 'turtle creek casino & hotel, closed'
All 12 federally-recognized tribes in Michigan closed their casinos to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Credit: Jan-Michel Stump/Traverse City Record-Eagle

state of science iconThis segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story by Kaye Lafond originally appeared on Interlochen Public Radio on March 27, 2020.

Over the last couple of weeks, Michigan officials worked to slow the spread of COVID-19, take care of citizens and stay operational. The twelve federally-recognized tribal governments in Michigan faced the same challenge.

None of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders apply to tribes—they’re sovereign states. Still, every tribe in Michigan closed or at least reduced staff in its government offices. All still provide some level of services.

“The state’s not shutting down,” said Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. “The state operations continue in triaging what’s necessary in the governmental operations and so that’s what we’re doing.”

The Sault tribe told its non-essential employees to stay home—with pay. Tribal law enforcement, health care workers and others are being asked to continue.

Payment said his tribe is often the main health care delivery system for its citizens.

“We’ve got team members that work in our health centers that are really stressed out right now, but we have to operate because we have to be able to receive people that are sick,” he said.

Larry Romanelli, Ogema of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, said his government is doing the best it can with what it has.

“Our food distribution program is still going on a limited basis, but we’re doing that,” Romanelli said. “We have our clinic open. We have our pharmacy still open… our family services department is doing some calls and visits as well.”

Limited Access To Test Kits

Tribes have varied—and limited—ability to test their own citizens for COVID-19.

“I talked to our doctors and I think they said they had no test kits at this time, and that was two or three days ago,” Romanelli said.

Bryan Newland, chairman of the Bay Mills Indian Community, said his tribe must go through the Chippewa County Health Department to get test kits or personal protective equipment from the state.

Newland said this is unusual—tribes are accustomed to working with the federal government.

“Right now the federal government is essentially saying for your immediate public health needs, we don’t got you right now,” Newland said. “You’ve gotta work with the states. And here in Michigan, the state is saying work with your local health departments.”

Bay Mills now has daily calls with the Chippewa County Health Department to share critical information. They had to build that relationship quickly, Newland said.

“I don’t blame the state for that, and I don’t blame the local health department,” Newland said. “This is just what happens when you do it differently and you expect people to figure it out on the fly during a crisis.”

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Upper Peninsula was reported last weekend in Chippewa County. Newland said that person was a prisoner at the Kinross Correctional Facility, and was being monitored by several corrections officers who are also Bay Mills tribal citizens.

The tribe’s health department ran a “trace and isolate” investigation and instructed several people to quarantine themselves.

“We have also worked with the Chippewa County Health Department and the Michigan Department of Corrections to ensure that we are communicating with each other about the exposure of corrections officers to inmates with coronavirus or coronavirus symptoms,” Newland said in a statement on Facebook.

Both Bay Mills and Sault tribes are working with private labs to increase their access to testing.

“We already have a pre-existing relationship with Quest Diagnostics and they’re able to handle our capacity,” Payment said. “And the state urged us that if we felt like we had a private way to get that done we should do that.”

Lost Casino Revenue

All 12 tribal governments in Michigan have closed their casinos. That’s left many without their main source of funding.

“Tribes don’t tax their tribal citizens,” Payment said. “What we do is we have economic development and enterprises to be able to generate revenue to provide essential programs and services.”

He called the financial impact of a two-month casino shutdown “horrible.” The Sault tribe’s reserves will be drained quickly because of its size, he said. With 44,000 citizens, it’s the largest tribe east of the Mississippi.

Ogema Romanelli said the temporarily closed Little River Casino and Resort is the primary moneymaker for his tribe.

“I believe 85 to 90 percent of our revenue comes from our casino. So it’s huge, and unexpected,” Romanelli said. “I think we’re able to sustain in the short-term anyway, and we’re just kind of playing it by ear to see what happens. Hopefully this is short-term but we never know.”

Bay Mills should be able to get essential government services to its citizens for most of the rest of the year, Newland said.

“We can get food delivered out to our elders and our school kids, police and fire and medical services, but it’s a lot of the extra stuff our government does that’s gonna be more difficult the longer we go without gaming revenue,” Newland said. “Of course with 400 people out of work and not getting paid, we’re just going to have to spend money on the back end to provide free services to make up for their lack of income.”

He also said that ‘extra’ doesn’t mean ‘unimportant.’ For example, casino profits provide funding for Bay Mills’ Tribal Historic Preservation Office. Newland said that office tracks projects that require digging up the ground in northern Michigan.

“Our staff goes out and they make sure that where this project is being developed doesn’t have burial sites or ceremonial grounds or other cultural resources… it’s actually essential to what we do as Indian people maintaining our identity, and that’s something that could be lost if this goes on too long,” he said.

Treaty Responsibilities

President Donald Trump signed a $2 trillion COVID-19 relief package on Friday. It sets aside $10 billion for tribes.

Payment said he’s happy about the money. However, he pointed out that while Native Americans make up about 2 percent of the U.S. population, the money for tribes accounts for half a percent of the bill’s total appropriations.

The federal government has a duty to fulfill its treaty responsibilities, he said.

“Most treaties, when we negotiated our land, promised for the health, education and social welfare [of tribal citizens] as long as the grass grows, the winds blow and the rivers flow,” Payment said. “So we have a direct right. It’s not an entitlement, it’s not welfare.”

Ogema Romanelli says he’s probably going to set up a task force to help the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians get relief funding.

“It’s gonna be a big job just following what grants there are, and stimulus money and state and local and federal, said Romanelli. “It’s gonna be a full-time job in itself I would think.”

Segment Guests

Kaye LaFond

Kaye LaFond is a science and conservation reporter for Interlochen Public Radio in Interlochen, Michigan.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: And now it’s time to check in on the state of science.

SPEAKER 2: This is KER–


SPEAKER 4: St. Louis Public Radio.


SPEAKER 6: Iowa Public Radio News.

IRA FLATOW: Local science stories of national significance– Michigan is home to 12 federally recognized tribal governments. They’re sovereign states, so they are not required to follow executive orders coming from Michigan’s governor, including a statewide stay-at-home order. Still, every tribe is taking precautions to fight the spread of COVID-19. All have closed their casinos, which means less money coming in to fund tribal costs. But how are they doing?

Joining me now is Kaye LaFond, Science and Conservation Reporter at Interlochen Public Radio in Northern Michigan. Welcome to Science Friday.

KAYE LAFOND: So happy to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Tell us what kind of measures the tribes in Michigan are putting in place to limit the spread of coronavirus.

KAYE LAFOND: Like you mentioned, the tribes are sovereign states, so they’re not required to follow executive orders issued by the governor of Michigan. But a lot of them have been issuing really similar measures– so, you know, closing their government offices, canceling community events. They’ve closed all of their casinos.

They’re still providing essential services to their citizens. So the health clinics are open. Their pharmacies are open. There’s lots of work to deliver meals to elders and that kind of thing.

But they’re all running on skeleton governments right now, just like the state of Michigan. They’re all working remotely. And it’s a different– a different setup.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s a different world. I understand that one of the people with COVID-19 in Michigan was incarcerated in the upper peninsula. And some corrections officers that monitored this person in prison are tribal citizens that work at the jail. How are the tribal leaders handling this case?

KAYE LAFOND: Yeah, so those were tribal citizens of the Bay Mills Indian Community. They had monitored this person while they were sick. Once the tribe found out, they did their own trace and isolate investigation. And that was on top of action taken by the Chippewa County Health Department that they’re working with.

But basically, they’ve kind of had to work to come up with this new sort of– with these new lines of communication, I guess. So now the tribe and the Michigan Department of Corrections have kind of talked about and formalized, OK, you know, these are what we’re going to do to inform each other, if there are tribal citizens that have potential exposures and that kind of thing.

But Chairman Bryan Newland said it wasn’t easy to build that relationship on the fly. It was not a good piece of information for the tribe to find out.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We all know that test kits for COVID-19 are very hard to come by in a lot of places, no matter who you are. What’s the testing situation like for the tribes?

KAYE LAFOND: It really varies. Last I heard, though, there were still some tribes that didn’t have access to test kits. And that was as of last week, some of the smaller tribes.

Some of the larger ones, like for example, the Soo Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians– they’re the largest tribe east of the Mississippi. And they’re based in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. And the first time I asked, they had had some test kits. But they only had two at that time for their 44,000 citizens.

But they’ve been getting more. So has Bay Mills. I’ve been talking to them. And both of those tribes right now are actually looking into private labs for their testing needs, so that– and the state of Michigan is actually encouraging this. They’re saying if you have access to private labs that you have a relationship with, and that can kind of help you get these tests processed faster, like they’re on board with that.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, no, it sounds like the rest of the country, we have states competing with the federal government to buy their own testing kits. It sounds more or less like the tribes are in this kind of situation themselves.

KAYE LAFOND: The tribes are kind of used to working with the federal government for this kind of thing. But he basically said they were told if you want PPE or test kits from the feds, then you have to go through the states. And then they were told by the state that they have to work through local health departments in Michigan.

So they’ve been doing what they can. But they don’t all have the ability to test their own citizens. And it’s concerning, because they have– they all have health clinics. They have citizens they have to take care of.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And we’ve heard this story in many different places. Thank you for keeping us up to date, Kaye.

KAYE LAFOND: Yeah, absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Kaye LaFond, Science and Conservation Reporter at Interlochen Public Radio.

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