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Wisconsin Tribes Seek To Prevent Potentially 'Devastating' Spread Of Coronavirus

Larry and Alice Deragon waited in line for about an hour to get tested for the coronavirus at a drive-thru testing event in Red Cliff. The two are members of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and they live just outside the reservation.

The couple wanted to get tested just to be on the safe side since they’re both up there in years. He’s 80 and she’s 76 years old.

Red Cliff tribal members Larry Deragon and his wife Alice attended a community testing event to get tested for COVID-19 at Red Cliff on June 12, 2020.

Danielle Kaeding/WPR

"I have a heart problem, and I have high blood pressure and I'm a diabetic. So, she's healthier than I am," Larry chuckled.

Alice said she's also had some heart issues, but nothing serious. Yet, the two are serious about taking precautions to avoid the virus, doing daily temperature checks and wearing masks. They stick pretty close to home because she feels it’s safer. Both are concerned because they know they’re at higher risk of developing more serious symptoms, and coronavirus cases have grown in the weeks since the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the state's "Safer at Home" order.

But, the steps they've taken to avoid the virus appear to have paid off. Their results came back negative along with the 350 other people who attended the community testing event offered by the Wisconsin National Guard, the Red Cliff tribe and Bayfield County.

Tribal communities in Wisconsin haven’t seen a spike in COVID-19 cases like some in other parts of the country, such as the Navajo nation, which has seen some of the highest infection and death rates in the country. However, COVID-19 diagnosis rates are higher on or near reservations in Wisconsin, according to the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Epidemiology Center.

Native Americans are among groups at higher risk for contracting the virus who have also seen higher rates of hospitalization nationwide. They make up 1 percent of the state population, as well as 1 percent of the state's confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Many tribes kept their own stay-at-home restrictions in place when the Supreme Court struck down the state's "Safer at Home" order. They say those restrictions and services like delivering groceries, meals and medications to those at risk helped to minimize exposure. As cases have surged in Wisconsin, tribes are remaining vigilant of the threat the disease poses to their members.

That’s why surveillance is so important as tribes have begun reopening, according to Red Cliff Tribal Chairman Rick Peterson.

"Testing is going to be a huge part of learning if anybody within the community has it, and then proper precautions can be taken to contain it," said Peterson.

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