The Oglala Sioux tribal council voted Wednesday evening to banish a non-member from the Pine Ridge Reservation after she contracted COVID-19.
“For an individual to leave the reservation going to one of the major hot spots where this virus is and then come back is just uncalled for,” President Julian Bear Runner said on KILI radio after the emergency session. “It was negligent that this individual would still leave after laws were already in place not just tribally, but nationally and globally.”
Bear Runner said that the person with the first confirmed COVID-19 case on the reservation is not a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe or Native American. The Journal learned through multiple sources that the person is a woman.
The woman contracted COVID-19 after returning from Denver on her way to a medical appointment in California that ended up being cancelled, her employer said. The tribal council has passed multiple ordinances restricting travel but all appear to exempt medical-related travel.
The council deadlocked 9-9 on a motion to banish the woman and her husband, according to Karin Eagle, a spokeswoman for the tribe and member of its COVID-19 task force. Bear Runner broke the tie vote by voting in favor of the banishment.
A motion to censure Red Cloud Indian School — the employer of the woman — failed, Eagle said.
Red Cloud “fully supports the tribe and its decision making” on this serious issue, school president Raymond Nadolny told the Journal on Thursday morning.
Nadolny says he understands the council’s decision but believes the school and employee — who was hired in July 2019 — followed all tribal rules. He said he plans to look into whether the couple can appeal the ban.
We’re “trying to make sure we do everything we can to support them during this time,” Nadolny said of the couple. We “want to make sure that we are fair both to our employee and to the tribe.”
Bear Runner was not available for comment on Thursday.
Never traveled to California
The person with COVID-19 lives and works at Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary School in Porcupine, the Red Cloud Catholic school system announced on its Facebook page on Tuesday afternoon.
The Facebook post said the couple had traveled to California but Nadolny said he recently learned that they never made it there.
The couple had been planning to travel March 26 to California for a medical procedure, Nadolny said. The pair flew from Chadron to Denver where they learned that the procedure had been canceled. The couple returned to Porcupine the next day.
They then went into a 14-day quarantine at their home on the school campus, the Facebook post says. The couple had no contact with anyone during this time, all groceries and other supplies were left outside their front door.
The worker began feeling sick and on April 3 went to the Indian Health Service hospital in Pine Ridge where staff told the couple to travel to another facility in Martin, the post says.
Bear Runner said on KILI that the person was turned away from the IHS since she isn’t enrolled in any tribe.
IHS facilities can only treat non-Native Americans in certain circumstances, according to federal law. Two of those circumstances are treating anyone who needs to be stabilized during a medical emergency and providing care in order to prevent a communicable disease or other public health hazard.
It's unclear if the woman was having a medical emergency at the time or displayed specific COVID-19 symptoms. The Journal is waiting to hear back from the IHS for comment.
After the employee was tested in Martin, the Facebook post says, the couple returned to their quarantine at home. The woman's preliminary test came back as positive on Tuesday afternoon, the same time she began to experience respiratory distress. She then went for treatment at a Rapid City hospital.
The employee immediately contacted Red Cloud after learning about the positive test, and the school then alerted the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the Facebook post says. Bear Runner soon ordered a lockdown that’s now set to end 6 a.m. on Friday before beginning for 14 more days at 10 a.m. on Saturday. The IHS and South Dakota Department of Health are investigating whether the person came into contact with anyone else, the order says.
The employee was released from the Rapid City hospital after one day of treatment, Nadolny said. Red Cloud is paying for the couple’s housing in Rapid City and the employee continues to earn a salary. Pastoral staff have also reached out to make sure the couple's spiritual and emotional needs are being met.
Red Cloud has a “really good working relationship with the tribe” and continues to communicate about the case and banishment, Nadolny said. He said he’s seeking clarification on whether the employee can appeal the banishment and why some council members think a law was broken.
Audio and video of the council meeting were not posted online as of Thursday afternoon but Bear Runner said on KILI radio that the employee had left the reservation after tribal, national and global laws related to COVID-19 were set in place.
There are no federal laws against traveling within the United States, but the Centers for Disease Control says people should take precautions if they decide to do so since it makes them more susceptible to contracting the virus.
The tribal council passed a shelter-in-place ordinance that went into effect March 27 — the day after the couple flew to Denver — that says most people can’t leave their homes or the reservation. But medical travel is exempt. The ordinance also says that people who travel outside the reservation must self-quarantine for 14 days, which the couple did.
“The prayers of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Oglala Sioux tribal council, they’re with that individual and their family,” Bear Runner said on the radio, adding that no one is saying the employee is a bad person.
This was a “really hard decision” and the couple should know that banishments can be challenged and overturned, he said.
Bear Runner said that non-tribal members who work or live on the reservation shouldn't be afraid that they'll be banned if they contract COVID-19. The couple was banished because they acted irresponsibly, he said. An IHS employee who contracts COVID-19 at the hospital through no fault of their own wouldn’t be banned, Bear Runner shared as an example.
“Just don’t act negligent," he said. “We cannot afford for any of our members, any of our community, any of our loved ones, our family members, to be exposed to the virus."
Bear Runner also spoke about shortages of COVID-19 testing, treatment and protective gear at the IHS.
The IHS says it's received more than $1 billion from the federal coronavirus stimulus bill after devoting $134 million in existing funds to fight the virus. The White House also announced that the IHS will have priority access to rapid point-of-care coronavirus tests.
The IHS has 71 ventilators and 33 intensive care unit beds at the 24 hospitals it runs directly, such as the one in Pine Ridge, according to a March 22 article in the Wall Street Journal.
The Journal is waiting to hear back from the IHS about how many beds and ventilators it has across South Dakota and in Pine Ridge specifically.
— Contact Arielle Zionts at firstname.lastname@example.org.