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After almost a year and half of the COVID-19 pandemic, Indian Country and the rest of the nation are more than ready for a return to normalcy. At the same time, recent surges of new cases fueled by the Delta variant have led to calls to resume mask-wearing and event cancelations. 

According to the CDC, even though American Indians are getting vaccinated at high rates, they are still seeing an increase in new COVID-19 cases. On July 31, American Indians and Alaska Natives had the highest number of weekly cases of any racial or ethnic group, with 86.6 cases per every 100,000 people, according to CDC data. Health officials across the country blame unvaccinated individuals and an uptick in Delta variant for the surge in COVID-19 cases. 

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Last week, the Cherokee Nation reported a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations and 600 new cases — a more than an 80 percent increase compared to the previous week. Nearly 13 percent of COVID-19 tests of Cherokee citizens are coming back positive, and 90 percent of the new infections have occurred among unvaccinated tribal members. 

Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said more than 80 percent of new cases are the work of the Delta variant. The Delta-driven surge has led the tribe to temporarily suspend elective surgeries and reactivate its COVID-19 surge plan for the W. W. Hastings Hospital. 

“A continued increase in cases could mean our health system is required to redirect health care staff from outlying health centers to assist in caring for hospitalized COVID patients at W.W. Hastings Hospital,” Hoskin said. “Not only is COVID-19 putting added pressures and risks on our hospital, health centers and our amazing health care team tasked with treating COVID patients, but the resurgence once again threatens the overall well-being of the Cherokee Nation and the most vulnerable among us, including our Cherokee elders.” 

‘We need to continue wearing masks in public’

At a White House briefing on Monday, health experts said the Delta variant is highly contagious. They estimated that a person with the delta variant infects five unvaccinated people, whereas a person with the original virus would only infect two. 

While about 70 percent of American adults have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot, about 90 million eligible Americans are not vaccinated, according to public health officials. Among those who are 12 to 17 years old, there has been a 50 percent increase in those seeking to be vaccinated in recent weeks.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its COVID-19 guidance for fully vaccinated people, recommending that everyone should wear a mask in indoor public settings in areas with high transmission rates. According to the CDC, fully vaccinated people can still potentially spread the delta variant of COVID-19, but have a much lower chance of getting sick.

The CDC also said that jurisdictions should consider putting indoor mask mandates in place, particularly for large public gatherings that include travelers from regions with different infection rates. Some tribes, including the Menominee Indian Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, have reinstated indoor mask mandates and social distancing. 

The Blackfeet Care Center in Montana is still under a 30-day lockdown until August 9 following an increase of COVID-19 cases around the time of a community healing event, according to the director of nursing at the care center. According to NBC News, the Blackfeet Nation has vaccinated over 98 percent of eligible citizens. 

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On the Navajo Nation, which was the epicenter of COVID-19 in Indian Country in 2020, the mask mandate has remained in effect even after cases began to decline. On Wednesday, the Navajo Nation reported 34 new COVID-19 cases, as well as no deaths for the fourth day in a row. To date, the tribe has had a total of 31,486 COVID-19 cases with 1,377 deaths related to the coronavirus. The Navajo Nation reported that it currently has 22 cases of the Delta variant. 

“Our frontline warriors and contact tracers are doing the best they can to reduce the spread of the Delta variant, but they need our help,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said on Tuesday. “We need more of our people to get fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and we need to continue wearing masks in public and taking precautions to keep ourselves and others safe and healthy.

“We cannot let our guard down and we cannot let another large surge happen here on the Navajo Nation. Please remain diligent and keep praying for our people,” Nez said. 

‘We want to do things in a cautious way so we can come out of this pandemic strong’

Across Indian Country, powwows and other events are being canceled or postponed, including the Oneida Powwow and Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Powwow. 

This week, the Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes (MAST) canceled its two-day summer session scheduled for Aug. 11 and 12.

The American Indian Cancer Foundation announced Friday that due to the rise of the Delta variant, it will hold its 10th annual Powwow for Hope online instead of in-person on August 28. 

“While Powwow for Hope will now be held virtually, AICAF still needs your help as cancer screening rates have dropped significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the foundation said in a statement. “Cancer is the leading cause of death for Native women and the second leading cause of death for Native men.”

The Native CDFI Network, a national coalition of Native community development financial institutions, will delay its annual policy and capacity building summit in Washington D.C. from mid-September to Nov. 16-17 due to concerns about the Delta variant. 

“The benefit of and the reason for having it in person ... is so that we can meet face to face, talk candidly and have conversations with policymakers,” Native CDFI Network executive director Jackson Brossy (Navajo) told Native News Online. “That’s lost (with a) virtual event.” 

Under New Mexico’s current COVID-19 guidelines, indoor events that accompany the Southwest Association for Indian Arts’ (SWAIA) 99th Annual Sante Fe Indian Market on August 19-22 will be restricted to a 150-person capacity limit. 

SWAIA operations director Jamie Schulze said the association will be keeping count of the number of people at the outdoor market, engaging in contact tracing, and considering other precautions based on the new CDC guidance. She added that admittance to the market will require a paid ticket for the first time this year. 

According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, a  report found that the 2018 Indian Market had an estimated economic impact of $165.3 million on the city of Sante Fe and surrounding area. The 2018 Indian Market also drew crowds of over 58,000 people, according to the Sante Fe New Mexican. 

Although Schulze said the turnout for the outdoor market isn’t expected to break capacity requirements, SWAIA is reducing the number of artist booths by about half due to COVID precautions. Schulze said that SWAIA has been working to create “microsites” with artists who won’t be able to attend the market due to the limited number of booths or economic reasons. 

“One of the things that we learned is that there’s a digital divide and moving forward, we wanted to create not only a bridge, but a pathway for some of those artists that don't have the connectivity, don’t have the resources, or the training,” Schulze said. “So we are putting together these micro-sites that will help meet them wherever they’re at. They will always have a presence, whether it’s a telephone number or an email or an actual website, that they are represented in a more profound way than we’ve been able to do in the past.”

Amid the cancellations and postponements of annual events, Indian gaming facilities continue to operate, albeit cautiously.  

Soon after the pandemic began, Indian gaming casinos and resorts voluntarily closed out of concern for public safety of employees, patrons and community members.

At the conclusion of the National Indian Gaming Association’ Indian Gaming Tradeshow and Convention in Las Vegas two weeks ago, Chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr. urged its members to be patient as Indian gaming facilities navigate out of the pandemic.

“We want to do things in a cautious way so we can come out of this pandemic strong,” Stevens said.

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