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HomeHealthOsage Nation sends home 57 employees with Covid; area schools move to...

Osage Nation sends home 57 employees with Covid; area schools move to virtual

The Wahzhazhe Health Center conducted mandatory employee testing Jan. 10-11. Courtesy Photo/ON Communications

Fifty-seven employees of the Osage Nation tested positive for Covid-19 during a surveillance effort of all 405 workers by the WahZhaZhe Health Center on Monday and Tuesday.

“None of this would be possible without the incredible care and commitment by our healthcare team,” said Dr. Amanda Bighorse, the clinic’s medical director. “Testing that many people in two days is not an easy task, yet they continue to show up and push through.”

Employees who tested positive were told to isolate for five days if they had no symptoms or if their symptoms are improving and they have had no fever for 24 hours. After that, they have been instructed to wear a mask for five days when around others.

Those instructions are in keeping with the Centers for Disease Control’s new guidelines, which have drawn criticism – including from the American Medical Association –  for being lax. The AMA’s president, Dr. Gerald Harmon, issued a letter last week noting that 31 percent of people with Covid are infectious five days after a positive test.

“Physicians are concerned that these recommendations put our patients at risk and could further overwhelm our health care system,” Harmon wrote. “A negative test should be required for ending isolation after one tests positive for COVID-19. Reemerging without knowing one’s status unnecessarily risks further transmission of the virus.”

The surge

The surge within the Nation’s ranks has been mirrored throughout Osage county and schools. Several schools, including the Nation’s own Daposka Ahnkodapi, Pawhuska, Woodland and Wynona schools, have had to move to virtual learning as absentee rates topped 20 percent.

Statewide, Oklahoma racked up a 342-percent increase in Covid cases over the past two weeks. Currently, 1.65 percent of all Oklahomans have active Covid ­– a whopping 64,806 cases, up from 14,661 just 14 days ago, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

The steep increase has led to shortages of tests and is affecting hospitals. In the region of Northeast Oklahoma, which comprises Osage, Washington and other counties, only two intensive care unit beds were staffed and available on Tuesday, while 27 were available in Tulsa.  Regular hospital beds were more abundant, with 116 available in the northeast part of the states and 244 in Tulsa.

The Nation’s 57 positive cases promoted the tribe to implement several safety measures, including: 

  • Closing the Osage Nation Welcome Center until further notice. Staff will remain on-site and be available by phone, fax and email.
  • Closing dining room access for the Elder Nutrition program. The program will offer meals via a drive-through and home delivery; and
  • Canceling all Osage Nation in-person language classes.

Vaccines reduce deaths

The high rates of infection are also driving people to get vaccinated in a state that has largely resisted getting the jab despite health data showing that it dramatically lowers one’s chance of dying or falling seriously ill.  On Jan. 4, more than 25,000 people got a vaccine injection, far more than normal.

According to OSDH, which admits that cases are undercounted and that death counts lag, unvaccinated people between the ages of 45-54 are more than 16 times more likely to die from Covid than their vaccinated peers. Among 55-64 year olds, the unvaccinated face 18 times the risk of death, 65-84 year olds nine times higher risk, and over 85 are about four times more at risk.

Schools going virtual

The steep and steady increase of Covid-19 cases has also started making itself felt in public schools.

Woodland, Pawhuska, Hominy and Wynona schools have all ditched in-person classes just barely into the winter term.

“It’s like everywhere else right now; it’s surging in our community,” said Chad Wilson, Superintendent of Woodland schools, which, like Hominy, went to virtual learning as of Wednesday, Jan. 12, to reopen next week.

“We’re not sure of the actual number of Covid cases but we have a lot of kids and staff out. We have about 27 percent of students absent with flu, Covid, whatever.”

Skiatook schools remain open and have targeted classrooms for virtual learning rather than shutting down entire sites, said Superintendent Rick Thomas. Rates of sickness – flu and other non-Covid ailments included – are climbing this week, but not to the point that distance learning is needed.

“But it does look like it’s going to get worse,” Thomas said. “We’re going to ride it out as long as we can. Staffing and bus drivers are what is going to hit us before the number of cases among students.”

In Wynona, the school wasn’t even open three days for its winter term before it shut down abruptly on Jan. 6 due to Covid; it was set to reopen Wednesday. It did not engage in virtual classrooms.

In Pawhuska, all schools jumped to virtual learning Tuesday and will remain on the remote schedule until a return to in-person school on Tuesday, Jan. 18.

Assistant Pawhuska Superintendent Beverly Moore said that the elementary absentee rate was about 20 percent on Monday, with nearly 80 pupils out at the two schools for younger students. 

Not all of the absences were due to Covid; Moore said that throughout all Pawhuska schools, 13 students and staff members were under Covid isolation because of a positive test. On Monday, Moore said she tested 35 people for Covid and 80 percent of those tests came back negative. By midday Tuesday, she had tested eight people and all were negative.

“No one has been really sick,” Moore added. “The only cases we’ve had have been mild. Last week, I made the comment that, ‘You know, the ones who come in looking really ill are not my positives.’”

Those who appear to be the sickest are presumed to have the flu, which is also spreading.

Pawhuska also postponed basketball homecoming by two weeks, until Jan. 29. As at other schools, extracurricular activities, including indoor winter sports like basketball and wrestling, are continuing uninterrupted.

Moore said Pawhuska schools are continually evaluating the situation and might institute mitigation efforts such as limiting spectators at sporting events.

A sanitary $35,000 gift

On the good-news front, she said that Pawhuska schools are availing themselves of a new opportunity in Osage County: An anolyte generator, or machine that produces a saline hypochlorous acid that sanitizes surfaces, destroying Covid and other viruses, along with bacteria, mold and fungus.

“It kills a lot of different viruses, including the Asian virus,” said Jerry Roberts, Osage County’s Emergency Management director. “We spray it everywhere in a mist that we get as fine as we can and it don’t hurt our computers or anything.”

Roberts said that the state Department of Emergency Management donated the $35,000 machine to Osage County, and it produces about 250 gallons of sanitizer in short order at a cost of about 6 cents a gallon. The sanitizer is available to all Osage County residents free of charge. Roberts said people may stop by the Pawhuska Fire Station on Lynn Avenue to obtain some – as long as firefighters aren’t out on a call.


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Louise Red Corn
Louise Red Corn has suffered from wanderlust for decades: She has lived and worked as a journalist and photographer in Rome, Italy, New York City, Detroit, Kentucky, Mississippi and Oklahoma, where she published The Bigheart Times for 12 years. She loves diving in-depth into just about any topic but is especially fond of covering legal issues, perhaps because her parents were both lawyers. She is married to Assistant Principal Chief Raymond Red Corn, who enticed her to move to the Osage Reservation in 2004. She and her husband live south of Pawhuska with one extremely large dog named Max, one extremely energetic dog named Pepper, and, if he bothers to make an appearance, a surly cat named Stinky.

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