The Bois Forte Band of Chippewa on Friday announced that five individuals have been infected with COVID-19 in Nett Lake, including three in their 30s and two between the ages of 0-6.

Tribal Chairwoman Cathy Chavers noted that all are now in isolation and quarantine. The reservation, she said, has recorded a total of 45 coronavirus cases since the pandemic reached Minnesota.

“We’re doing great with the virus, but we can all still get it,” she said.

Earlier this week, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reported three new cases and a total of 91 on the reservation set near Cloquet. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe on Thursday reported 18 active cases and 385 recovered on the reservation located near Bemidji.

Chavers noted that Minnesota health officials have discovered five cases of the new COVID-19 variant. The strain, which was first detected in the U.K. in September, has been identified in people between the ages of 15 and 37 in Carver, Dakota, Hennepin and Ramsey counties. None of those infected have been hospitalized. Two of them had traveled internationally.

Chavers told members that the strain was more contagious than previous strains, but is not believed to be more severe, keeping in line with public health officials across the country. She made a plea for people to continue the practices of wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings.

Minnesota health officials have said they believe the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines can protect against the new variant.

COVID-19 in surrounding communities

The Bois Forte Reservation, which has between 400 to 700 residents, spreads across both St. Louis and Koochiching counties, which are reporting a reduced yet a continued pace of infections.

As of Friday, St. Louis County (Pop. 200,080) health officials reported a total of 13,503 cases and 239 deaths. The city of Hibbing (Pop. 16,000) had 1,084 cumulative cases, while Chisholm (Pop. 5,000) had 335. A smaller community, such as Britt (Pop. 1,069), had 104 cases.

Despite showing signs of improvement, the Minnesota Health Department reported 1,640 cases and 33 deaths on Friday, bringing the totals to 443,562 and 5,850, respectively. That same day, the federal Indian Health Services Office in Bemidji reported 9,072 positive cases, with a seven-day rolling positivity average of 8.5 percent.

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Native communities. A study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that American Indian and Alaskan Native people were 3.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with the coronavirus than white people.

Bois Forte Band administers COVID-19 vaccine

In Minnesota, at least six tribes have chosen to get the vaccine from IHS and five have opted to work with the state Health Department, according to Minnesota Public Radio. The IHS office in Bemidji, which serves tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, was the first of its kind in the nation to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

The Bois Forte Band received their first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. By that Friday, at least 90 people on the reservation received a dose, including health care workers, emergency personnel and elders with underlying health conditions as determined by medical clinic physicians. Most of the health care providers, emergency personnel and elders have received the first round of Pfizer shots and are now awaiting their second doses. The band then received the second vaccine, developed by Moderna, on Dec. 23. But due to tribal government offices being closed for the holidays, the band is still in the process of distributing that vaccine to people on the reservation.

The Bois Forte Medical Clinic has been administering vaccinations while keeping their regular appointments — a heavy load for a small staff. Last week, Chavers asked members to be patient with the distribution process. “Many people in the state and the U.S. will not have the opportunity to receive a COVID vaccine until mid-summer, which is June of 2021.”

Update on vaccinations

During her most recent update, Chavers on Thursday said that health officials on the reservation have administered at least 450 shots of COVID-19 vaccinations to emergency personnel and elders with chronic and underlying health conditions. But the IHS has warned band leaders that they may not receive the promised number of vaccines in the coming weeks.

Chavers told members the IHS could not provide reasons why additional vaccinations might get put on hold.

The following morning, the Washington Post published an article revealing that the Trump administration had no reserve for second shots of vaccines despite reporting to the contrary. “Now, health officials across the country who had anticipated their extremely limited vaccine supply as much as doubling beginning next week are confronting the reality that their allocations will not immediately increase, dashing hopes of dramatically expanding eligibility for millions of elderly people and those with high-risk medical conditions,” the Post reported.

An IHS spokesperson did not respond to inquiries as of press time.

For now, health officials will continue to administer the vaccines they already have in their possession to people over the age of 18. Based on the upcoming availability of doses, they hope to begin providing their next round of shots to people between the ages of 45 and 55.

As of Friday, the IHS had distributed 290,900 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines across the country and more than 74,000 first doses have been administered, according to the CDC​.

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