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Visiting Navajo Nation Doctor Worries COVID will "Spread Like a Wildfire" After July 3rd Events

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A frontline healthcare provider from the Navajo Nation is concerned about the impact the weekend’s 4th of July events will have on South Dakota’s Native communities. The Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board says Native Americans already make up half of Pennington County’s COVID-19 cases.

Dr. Karen Williams is an enrolled member of the Susanville Indian Rancheria of California. She’s a hospitalist physician at a facility within the Navajo Nation, which has been one of the hardest-hit areas in the country during the pandemic.

Dr. Williams visited Rapid City late last week and presented a webinar hosted by the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board. She says most people are now taking precautions on the Navajo reservation.

“And here," she says, "I’ve been in the grocery store in Rapid City. I don’t see any of that. I don’t see anybody wearing a mask."

She’s especially concerned after the influx of people drawn by President Trump’s visit to Mt. Rushmore on Friday.

“I’m concerned about the impact it is gonna have on the people here in this community, and I’m concerned how it can spread into the local reservations. We already know that 50% of the people who are diagnosed with COVID-19 in Rapid City are Natives," Dr. Williams says. 

A few weeks ago, Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board released a statement that 53% of COVID-19 cases in Pennington County were tribal citizens—five times as much as the county’s Native population. The statement cites data from Monument Health and the Great Plains Tribal Epidemiology Center. The South Dakota Department of Health does not report racial demographics by county, but it does show Natives account for 15% of South Dakota’s total cases.

Dr. Williams hopes organizations are proactive about testing for COVID-19 in tribal communities. She also says more support is needed for those who need to quarantine after a positive COVID test result.

“Especially after this weekend after thousands of people came into this town from out of state and did not take precautions," she says. "I am concerned it’s going to spread like a wildfire.”

The CDC says it can take up to 14 days after exposure to show COVID-19 symptoms, but it’s possible people without symptoms can spread the virus.