BOIS FORTE RESERVATION — Chairwoman Catherine “Cathy” Chavers, several tribal council members and the head nurse on the reservation in northern Minnesota are now quarantining after being exposed to individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are showing symptoms of the virus, a band official said Monday.
Louise Isham, senior executive coordinator of the band, told the Mesabi Tribune that the tribal council learned of the positive case in Nett Lake on Friday and immediately closed the federal tribal government building, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources offices and fitness centers. “There was contact tracing done and any individuals who have had contact with that employee are quarantining,” the tribal council wrote in a news release on Saturday. “...The individuals who are quarantining must do so for two weeks and so are staff, family members, tribal council members, so they are to wait and see if they develop any symptoms.”
Chavers, who was re-elected last week to serve her second term as chairperson, and several tribal members were among the individuals now quarantining in their homes on the reservation for 14 days, Isham said. They have been tested for the virus and are currently waiting for their results.
The Bois Forte Band has about 3,500 enrolled members. Between 500-700 members live on the reservation in Nett Lake and Vermilion, while the majority live in Minneapolis.
As of Saturday, the Bois Forte Band had five total cases of COVID-19. Four people have tested positive in Vermilion and one in Nett Lake.
Last Friday, tribal nurse Teri Morrison announced that the band had imposed quarantine rules after announcing three new COVID-19 cases. She took to the band’s YouTube page that morning to make an “urgent community health notice” reporting that three residents — two teenagers and one individual in their 40s from the Vermilion sector of the reservation — tested positive for the coronavirus the previous day at the Bois Forte Health Services. “All of these cases are tied to a single exposure that occurred off the reservation,” Morrison said. “The individuals are currently under isolation at their homes.”
In light of the new cases, band leaders requested that tribal employees and residents on the reservation refrain from attending inside or outside gatherings with more than 10 people. Any employee who decides to attend such get togethers must self-quarantine on their own leave for 14 days after the event. Any residents who attend such a get-together are being asked to self-quarantine at their home for 14 days.
The tribal council on Saturday expanded on the cases: “There was an individual from off the reservation at a party on Monday, Aug. 17, in Vermilion who had contact with band members. This party then resulted in an employee from the Wilderness [at Fortune Bay Resort Casino] testing positive on Thursday, but the employee only worked at the golf course on Tuesday and was only in the kitchen area of the golf course.”
There was an event held last Thursday at the Wilderness golf course. But once the band learned of the positive case, the council contacted the Bois Forte Health Services, Minnesota Department of Health and the Indian Health Service “in order to put the necessary safety precautions in place to end the event,” the tribal council wrote. “The kitchen was then closed immediately and staff were tested and we have been made aware that none of them have tested positive as of today.”
The Fortune Bay Casino Resort remains open to the public and continues to practice temperature checking, mask-wearing and social distancing, Isham said.
On Sunday, Morrison — who is married to Tribal Councilman Travis Morrison, who just won re-election last week — took to her Facebook page to tell community members that “our boys had a party at our cabin in Vermilion this past Monday.” The Morrisons added, “We did not know about the party till a couple of their friends came up positive for COVID later in the week. Our boys have not tested positive for COVID yet, but I’m assuming they will. They both started getting symptoms Friday.” (Teri Morrison said she did not know about her sons showing symptoms when she made the update video earlier that morning.)
The head nurse and the tribal councilman, who had contact with the boys earlier in the week, have since gone home to quarantine. The boys are now in quarantine and are waiting for test results. “Most of the kids that came, were from out of town and not from the reservation, beyond their immediate friend group that they hang out with on the daily,” they wrote. “Their immediate friends are all quarantined.”
Chavers, the tribal council and Morrison had been steadfast in their approach to curbing the spread of the coronavirus on the reservation.
The tribal nation initially restricted traveling on-and-off the reservation and required government staff to wear masks to protect their Indigenous community members who suffer underlying health conditions at higher rates per capita than white neighbors who largely make up the demographics in the surrounding St. Louis, Itasca and Koochiching counties.
Tribal leaders have cautioned members that the coronavirus was nearing the boundaries of the reservation and have asked them to continue practicing social distancing while the band reopened the Fortune Bay Casino Resort and outdoor amenities known to draw in outsiders to the nearby lakes.
The new cases arrive nearly two months after Chavers reported the band’s first brush with the coronavirus: a female band member tested positive for the coronavirus June 16 on the Vermilion sector of the reservation. The woman went into “quarantine” and has since recovered.
In their most recent statements from last week, the tribal council noted that the newly imposed quarantine rule had been “made for tribal government staff as we have had staff who have attended large gatherings such as the Effie Rodeo, Sturgis and there was a party planned on the Vermilion side over the weekend.” The tribal council continued, “We feel that staff made their own decisions for going out and about and should not be attending large events due to possible exposure.”
Thousands of individuals attended the North Star Stampede Rodeo last month in Effie, despite orders from the Minnesota Health Department and the state Attorney General’s Office to limit crowds. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced July 30 that his office sued North Star Ranch, LLC, in Itasca County for holding the three-day event without following required safety precautions. His actions came after the state health department reported that one spectator who went to the rodeo had tested positive for COVID-19.
More recently, the Minnesota Health Department publicly expressed concern over the large gathering of non mask-wearing individuals at the Sturgis, S.D., motorcycle rally from Aug. 7-16. Last Friday, state officials confirmed at least 15 Minnesotans tested positive for the coronavirus after attending the event. Officials warned citizens that more positive results are likely to follow as rally goers return to the state.
“There are cases everywhere,” Chavers wrote to tribal members over the weekend, a note obtained by the Mesabi Tribune. “I just heard of more in Hibbing and Virginia. These cases did not originate on the reservation or casino. That is the best way. We knew at some point the virus would come to Bois Forte. Please do not be mean or pointing fingers. We all need to help each other during this time.”
The uptick in cases on the reservation come as the surrounding counties have been reporting a rapid increase in coronavirus cases, some of which resulted from people attending Sturgis and other large gatherings.
At the end of June, Koochiching County (Pop. 12,500) reported nine cases and zero deaths, according to the state Health Department. As of Monday, the county now has 85 cases and three deaths.
In the same time frame, Itasca County (Pop. 43,000) had 63 cases and 12 deaths. The county now has 166 cases with the same death toll.
In St. Louis County (Pop. 200,000), health officials reported 161 cases at the end of June, with 130 in Duluth. The county now reports 768 cases and 22 deaths.
The city of Duluth (Pop. 85,884) accounts for the majority of the current cases at 547 since mid-March, yet the number of cases have been steadily increasing in the smaller communities of the Iron Range: Hibbing, 31; Quad Cities, 14; and Virginia, 10; Tower, 10, according to data from the county’s COVID-19 dashboard on Monday.
Kids, teens and young adults have become the most infected sector of the population in St. Louis County. Data from the county shows that individuals ages 15-19 account for 15 percent of the cases, a high percentage considering the state’s remains at 9 percent. The same goes for people ages 20-24 who make up 18 percent of the cases, compared to the state’s 13 percent.
Overall, St. Louis County residents ages 1 to 106 have been infected with the virus. People ranging from 13 to 92 years old have been hospitalized and individuals 62 to 106 died.
The Bois Forte Band is among several tribal nations in Minnesota which have reported positive cases of the coronavirus. As of Monday, the federal Indian Health Services reported that 1,022 people tested positive for COVID-19 in the Bemidji area.