$7.6 million new clinic opens on reservation

Shown is the new 11,000-square-foot Bois Forte Vermilion Clinic.

Based in northeast Minnesota, the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa will soon be able to test members on the reservation for the coronavirus.

The Nett Lake Health Clinic received one COVID-19 analyzer for testing from the Indian Health Services, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “We are receiving three kits per week, which includes 24 tests in each kit,” Chavers said earlier this week. "These tests are for anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19 and they’ve been screened by clinic staff either in Nett Lake or Vermilion.”

As of Friday, Chavers said there were “no active cases” on the reservation.

Nearly 140 miles southwest in Minnesota, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe has partnered with IHS and the Mayo Clinic to administer tests on the reservation. The band has also reached out to the University of Minnesota in attempts to strengthen testing capabilities.

“The tests are still limited, but they are available to those who display COVID-like symptoms,” Leech Lake Chairman Faron Jackson, Sr. said during an update on the band’s Facebook page. Jackson said the band conducted eight tests last week. The results were all negative.

Increased testing on the reservations comes at a time when Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced the $36 million “moonshot” test strategy to allow for the diagnostic testing of as many as 20,000 samples per day. The state reached a deal with the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic to move forward on the most aggressive testing plan in the nation.

The governor says that the increase in testing “will identify emerging hot spots of infection for rapid intervention before they become critical” and help toward reopening more businesses and public spaces which have been closed under his executive stay-at-home order which expires on May 4.

As of Saturday, the Minnesota Health Department reported 3,446 cases and 244 deaths. The state had 23 new deaths from the coronavirus — the most in a single day.

Michael Osterholm, director of the university’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said about 5 percent of the state’s 5.6 million residents have been affected by the coronavirus. The virus is expected to infect at least 60 to 70 percent of the population.

There are 574 federally recognized tribes across the United States, many suffering impacts from the spread of the coronavirus. The hardest hit among them are the 350,000 members of the Navajo Nation, who have endured a spike in cases over the past several weeks. As of Friday evening, the Navajo Nation confirmed 1,540 COVID-19 cases and 58 deaths as of Wednesday on the 27,413-square-mile reservation spanning across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, according to the Navajo Times newspaper.

About 60,000 American Indians live in the state of Minnesota, where they face high rates of diabetes and heart disease. Leaders from the 11 tribal nations in the state have expressed concerns over the underlying health conditions coupled with limited access to health care amid the spread of the coronavirus.

The seven Anishinaabe reservations and four Dakota communities here have been steadfast in efforts to increase special relief funds to purchase food for their elders, many of whom live in rural communities far from big box stores like Target and Walmart.

Just like other tribal nations, the Bois Forte Band received $1 million from the state Legislature’s $330 million emergency coronavirus funding. And like tribes across the country, the Bois Forte and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe near Cloquet, among others in the state, applied to the U.S. Treasury for their share of the $8 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES ACT) that became law in late March. Tribes across the country have yet to receive the funding and dozens of tribal governments have gone to court to challenge the Treasury Department’s decision to make certain for-profit Native corporations eligible for stimulus funds they say would cost them millions of dollars in aid.

The Bois Forte Reservation is a 240-square-mile spread of rural land in northeast Minnesota, just 45 miles south of the U.S.-Canada border. An estimated 500 to 700 of the 3,500 enrolled members live on the reservation in a setting rich in wild rice spanning St. Louis, Koochiching and Itasca counties. They reside in an already socially distanced area roughly 60 miles north of the string of communities tied along the Iron Range and amid the 340-square mile Kabetogama State Forest, the gateway into the enormity of Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The Navajo Nation had pleaded with the National Park Service to close the Grand Canyon, which has more than 6 million tourists a year. Earlier this month, the state of Arizona’s stay-at-home order went into effect and health officials confirmed that a park employee tested positive for COVID-19 and was put into isolation. Afterward, the NPS moved to temporarily close the Grand Canyon, a move that mirrored the shutterings of other iconic national parks including Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Great Smoky Mountains.

As part of the NPS, the BWCA has temporarily closed. But the surrounding state parks and natural preserves remain open, except for private and public campgrounds and dispersed camping sites.

Though not governed by the state, the federally-recognized Bois Forte Band and other tribal nations have mirrored the Walz Administration's closures of dine-in services at bars and restaurants and moved to shut down the Fortune Bay Resort Casino, its largest business employing about 500 Native and non-Native staff. The Bois Forte joined a number of tribal nations in shutting down the casino including Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe with a casino in Hinckley, the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe in Carlton and Duluth and both the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the Prairie Island Indian Community near Minneapolis.

Unlike the state, the Bois Forte mandated all tribal employees to wear masks and developed a “red-zone” to essentially enact travel restrictions to cities other than International Falls to the north and Hibbing and Virginia to the south. Tribal staff and members were discouraged from traveling further south to Duluth.

But the band has been making moves to reopen certain aspects of the reservation amid changes in the state’s approach to social distancing.

Last week, at the behest of politicians and business owners, Walz announced the reopening of statewide golf courses, shooting ranges and other outdoor-related businesses. Earlier this week, he directed the state Department of Tourism to begin allowing resort owners to accept guests if they are comfortable to do so. While the reopening comes as a relief to many Minnesotans, the state’s directives remain a point of confusion. For example, the Walz administration now allows people to enjoy more outdoor activities yet tells people to abide by the current stay-at-home order which encourages them to avoid unnecessary travel and remain close to home.

On Wednesday, Chavers lifted “redzone” restrictions and said the Bois Forte will reopen The Wilderness golf course at Fortune Bay on May 8.

What it means to remain close to home obviously varies depending on whether people live in rural or metro areas. Tribal members anticipate attracting regular golfers from Hibbing and Virginia, who travel at least 60 miles one-way. The band also expects to bring in people coming in from further distances such as Duluth, which sits 92 miles south in St. Louis County. (Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced that the U.S. and Canada extended restrictions barring nonessential travel across shared borders for another 30 days during the coronavirus pandemic.)

“We do believe people will be coming up for resorts and fishing,” Chavers said during an update Friday. “Please remember to practice social distancing, wash your hands and please be safe.”

The Walz administration says the virus is expected to peak in July, a time when golfers and tourists flood north to the reservation and its surrounding outdoor amenities.

As of Saturday, St. Louis County reported 61 cases and 10 deaths. Koochiching County had one case and Itasca County had two.

Previously, Chaver said the tribal council has been preparing for the inevitable: the coronavirus will reach the reservation.

Increased testing will give Minnesota and the Bois Forte the ability to identify hotspots but of concern remains whether the tribal nation and others across the state have adequate access to health care for people who might need intensive care and ventilators.

Data from the Kaiser Health News shows that Hennepin County has 311 ICU beds and Ramsey has 135. But St. Louis County has 179; Itasca County, nine; Carlton, six; Aitkin, four; and Koochiching, Lake and Cook, a total of zero.

Fairview Range in Hibbing has four ICU beds and 73 staffed beds; Essentia Health in Virginia has eight ICU beds and 48 staffed beds, according to Definitive Healthcare and Esri, which built an interactive data platform meant to monitor American hospital bed capacity.

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