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COVID-19 Surge Leads To Stay Home Orders, Closed Schools On Fort Peck Reservation

The novel coronavirus.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Montana state health officials flagged six counties Wednesday as areas of significant COVID-19 growth. A hotspot in northeast Montana is grappling to get its case number under control.

Roosevelt County together with Cascade, Flathead, Gallatin, Missoula and Yellowstone Counties, represent sixty-five percent of new reported cases of COVID-19 according to state health officials.

Chief of state's Communicable Disease Bureau Jim Murphy said this week that outbreaks in congregate settings , like schools or elder homes, contributed to Roosevelt County’s uptick in positive cases, as did community transmission.

“Large households with a lot of different ages in them create some unique challenges," Murphy said during a press conference Wednesday.

Assiniboine and Sioux Tribal health officials say most of the 167 active cases in Roosevelt County are tribal members on the overlapping Fort Peck Reservation. Five people have died in the county from COVID-19 related illness according to state data.

The tribes on Tuesday reverted back to Phase 1 status, a move the county has not taken. Phase 1 puts non-essential employees and residents on the reservation under stay at home orders and limits gatherings to 10 people or fewer.

Tribal councilwoman Kaci Wallette says the tribes previously had been trying to mirror the governor’s mandates.

“But now with these high increase of cases and people are passing away with this virus, we thought we had to take a stricter stance," Wallette says.

Wallette says local medical centers are short on beds and staff. She says some patients are being sent out of the county for care.

"The staff at the hospital, they’re on critical. I’m a nurse and I just was asked to pick up this weekend, so I’ll be working in the Poplar ER this weekend," Wallette says.

She says the state sent personnel to help with things like contact tracing and food delivery, and the tribes are working with a medical staffing agency to bring in extra nurses and health professionals.

Wallette says the tribe doesn’t have jurisdiction over the county or schools, but is requesting that area schools transition to 100 percent remote learning.

Poplar School District on the Fort Peck Reservation is already in its second week of fully remote classes after students and staff tested positive for the virus.

Superintendent Dan Schmidt says the district, which last week served 400 meals a day, wasn’t able to hand out lunches Monday and Tuesday because food service staff were in quarantine.

“We know that’s a struggle whenever we don’t offer food services," Schmidt says.

He says the school was able to provide lunch again Wednesday by pulling in substitute teachers and extra staff.

Tribal council member Wallette says as the reservation heads back into shut down, the tribe is telling households to quarantine if one person tests positive or is flagged as a close contact.

She says the tribe is providing food boxes and hired a COVID-19 health and safety compliance officer to check in on those households.

“We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for our enrolled membership to stay home," she says.

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.