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'The fear of COVID': COVID-19 devastates Native American tribes in Nebraska

Vaccination efforts in full swing
Posted at 6:31 PM, Apr 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-09 11:27:40-04

SANTEE, Neb. (KMTV) — According to a CDC report, Native Americans are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white individuals. Nationwide, one in every 475 Native Americans has died since the start of the pandemic. Native Americans living in Nebraska say that statistic doesn't shock them and that those numbers reflect the historically inadequate healthcare and health services of American Indians.

Rain falls on an empty field on the Santee Reservation in Northeastern Nebraska, which used to be a bustling place of family, friends and togetherness. Every summer the Native American tribe holds a powwow to recognize their rich culture and history.

"I miss that. I miss the dances, I miss the color of the regalia," Santee Dakota tribe member Tim Trudell said.

Trudell used to drive into the reservation every summer from Omaha, but the tradition was quickly stopped during the pandemic. Trudell's brother, Roger Trudell, the chairman of the Santee Dakota tribe, said they've lost much more than just their traditions.

"Well, it's pretty much closed our community, destroyed our businesses and that was on top of the flood the year before. We didn't even recover from the flood and then we had to start dealing with COVID," Rodger said.

Every part of life on the reservation has been affected by the virus — school, healthcare and overall well-being.

"We had almost three times the amount of deaths that we experience in a year," Rodger said.

And while cases remained low, deaths soared. The deaths are not all directly linked to COVID. Some are a result of all the secondary issues that came along with the virus.

"The fear of COVID, of getting COVID, those things all add to not being well. So if a person had underlying issues to start with, can't get into the clinics, scared to go to the emergency room, you end up dying," Rodger said.

The Santee clinic has been quickly trying to vaccinate the reservation of a little over 1,000 people. They get their vaccine allocation from Indian Health Services. Despite historical mistrust between the tribes and government, Native Americans are eager for the opportunity to get vaccinated.

"Native Americans have always been low priority for the government to care for them," Tim said. “Historically there should be a lot of hesitancy. But I think, especially the older people, people want to see their families.”

Tim was vaccinated at the Fred Leroy Health and Wellness Center in South Omaha, the tribal clinic that cares for Native Americans living off reservations. The clinic recognizes their services are needed far beyond South Omaha.

"Reservations aren't set up like a CHI or a UNMC. Reservations, some of them are poor," Fred Leroy Community Health Manager Nancie Velasquez said.

The Santee Dakota tribe hopes the state and the federal government realize just how large the disparities are between Native Americans and the rest of the country, and take action after the pandemic.