Tribal and health officials with the Forest County Potawatomi Community are warning of COVID-19 cases that have been linked to a powwow held last weekend in northern Wisconsin. Forest County Potawatomi and surrounding tribes are urging people to get tested if they attended the event regardless of whether they have been vaccinated.
The tribe issued a health alert on Wednesday about individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 that had been in contact with others who attended the annual Meno Keno Ma Ge Wen Powwow in Carter on Aug. 6-8. The powwow has drawn anywhere from 200 to 500 people in the past. It's unclear how many attended this year, according to a tribal spokesperson.
In a special announcement on social media, Forest County Potawatomi Chairman Ned Daniels Jr. said Wednesday that the community is seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases in the area. The tribe is postponing all large gatherings and events on the reservation until Aug. 30 and all tribal employees will be working remotely until then.
"The Tribe is taking this news seriously and have notified area health departments, as well as other tribes who participated in the event, to ensure that anyone who attended is aware of the possible exposure to COVID-19," said Daniels in a statement. "This news is unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected, as many regions across Wisconsin continue to see increases in the amount of positive COVID-19 cases. But we will continue to do our part to help minimize the spread of this virus."
Daniels advised the community to follow COVID-19 safety protocols and get vaccinated. Forest County has seen nine positive cases in the last week, according to the county health department. A tribal spokesperson said the tribe has confirmed two people who tested positive attended the powwow. Everyone who attended was encouraged to wear masks and follow CDC guidelines.
The tribe is urging people who are unvaccinated and may have been exposed to get tested and quarantine for two weeks while monitoring for symptoms. People who have been vaccinated are advised to get tested for the virus and wear a mask indoors until they receive a negative test.
The Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Menominee Indian Tribe are also encouraging people to get tested if they attended the event.
Lac du Flambeau Tribal President John Johnson, Sr. said many who attended the event are being tested. He said the tribe has had no confirmed cases of the virus, noting unvaccinated people are advised to test 5-7 days after exposure.
"We're hoping nobody has it," said Johnson.
Johnson said he expects the tribe will hold a meeting next week to revisit its mask mandate, which was lifted for many areas of the reservation in June.
"We're going to see what we can do to protect our people back home here and how we can have respect for one another," said Johnson. "And, hopefully, the people that didn't get vaccinated will start doing so. We have to look out for our elders, for our community as a whole, and respect one another, and get the shots."
Cases have begun to tick upward as the more contagious delta variant is spreading across the state and nation, and Native Americans are among groups at higher risk for contracting the virus due to health disparities.
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In nearby Menominee County, the Menominee Tribal Clinic had no cases from June 28 through July 26. Since then, the clinic has confirmed 17 COVID-19 cases with two cases occurring in the past week, according to Dr. Amy Slagle, the clinic’s medical director.
So far, the clinic has tested around 40 people who attended the powwow.
"None have been positive who have identified being at that powwow," said Slagle. "However, given just the natural history of the virus and the way it replicates in the body, it may be next week before we can actually say we're seeing people tied to that."
She attributes the recent rise in cases at the tribal clinic to the more infectious delta variant that’s spreading across the country. The tribe has canceled its own powwow scheduled for next month.
Many other events are now requiring a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination as the delta variant spreads. Last week, Milwaukee health officials reported that nearly 500 COVID-19 cases were linked to the Deer District where thousands gathered for the Milwaukee Bucks’ victory in the NBA Finals.
This week, the Menominee tribe began offering a $500 incentive for tribal members and employees who get vaccinated.
"The incentive arose mostly out of concern about what's happening with the delta variant in that it's more contagious. It's causing more severe disease, and it's occurring in the unvaccinated," said Slagle. "So the tribes felt that providing this incentive would be one more tool that will we have to convince people to vaccinate."
Slagle said around 40 percent of individuals under the age of 35 are fully vaccinated compared to 90.5 percent of tribal elders. She said initial response to the incentive indicates they’ll see an increase in vaccination among younger individuals. The tribe has vaccinated 82 people since the incentive was announced on Tuesday. One month ago, the tribe was vaccinating roughly half that many people each week.
Vaccine hesitancy remains an issue among some tribal members due to distrust of the government stemming from historical trauma. Slagle said anti-vaccine sentiment, job insecurity and drug use also play a role.
Despite hesitancy among some, the CDC reports that Native Americans have the highest vaccination rate in the country. State data shows that's also true for Menominee County where around 58 percent of Native Americans have received at least one dose compared to 53 percent of Wisconsin residents overall.
Just under one third of Native Americans in Forest County, which is home to the Forest County Potawatomi's reservation, have received at least one dose of the vaccine.