The CRST Tribal Health Department has used three important strategies throughout the last year to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on the Cheyenne River Reservation. These include testing, contact tracing, and vaccine distribution.
Danette Serr, Director of Nursing for the Tribal Health Department has led the charge since the beginning of the pandemic. The CRST Tribal Health Team consists of 3 providers (Dr. Almeyda, Dr. Camacho, and Sue Baker), 8 nurses (Molly Longbrake, Jordan Fiddler, Kathy Red Dog, Betty Cook, Laura Hunt, Jill Marshall, Deana Gipp, and Bobbie Pearman), and 17 support staff (Carlita Brown, Jason White Wolf, Delbert Bruguier, Sioux Red Bear, Leeann Jewett, Jonni Arpan, Jeri Starr, Jimmi Ward, Gil Dog Eagle, Bohdi LaPlante, Curi Whiteman, Rebecca LaPlante, Teri Pretty Weasel, Jade White Wolf, Jamie Weidmer, Dorci Rousseau, and Kristi Lawrence).
Few people fully appreciate all the behind-the-scenes work this team has done for the past year. In this interview with Danette Serr, you’ll get to hear a bit about what the CRST Tribal Health team has been busy with.
What does a typical day look like for you?
When I get to work, I gather yesterday’s COVID numbers for my daily report. After that, my time is spent in meetings with the state and IHS, organizing testing and vaccination events, answering calls on the COVID hotline, and helping give vaccines and testing. Now that COVID cases have slowed down, I usually work 8 am to 5 pm. During the busiest time in the pandemic, I would sometimes work 12+ hour days. I also do non-COVID work related to infection control of other diseases like sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and tuberculosis (TB).
CRST Tribal Health and IHS are different entities, but we’ve seen you work closely together. How has this partnership helped in your response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Tribal Health has partnered with IHS to organize testing and vaccinations events. To pull off a big event, you need a lot of people for registration, creating new charts, swabbing, and follow-up calls. Also, we are both giving vaccines so we share vaccination numbers with each other for our report to CDC.
How does contact tracing work and why is it important?
When the state, IHS, or Tribal Health finds a positive COVID case on the Cheyenne River reservation, my contact tracing team is notified. From there, we call the person to ask about recent travel, close contacts within 48 hours of symptom onset, and their vaccination status. Then we get to work notifying all close contacts that they may have been exposed to COVID. All information shared is kept confidential.
Contact tracing is important because if we can quarantine people who may get COVID-19 early on, we can potentially save the lives of elders and others who can’t protect themselves. It’s really important that people answer calls from our contact tracing team and be honest about their exposures. We don’t quarantine people to be mean, we’re just trying to save lives.
39% of adults on Cheyenne River have received at least 1 vaccine, which is better than the state or national vaccination rates. What has Tribal Health done to get people vaccinated for COVID-19?
Since the first vaccine became available in December 2020, we have had multiple vaccination events. My team has been to every community on the reservation, and we even do home visits as needed to get people vaccinated.
So far this week, we’ve given COVID shots in Iron Lightning, Thunder Butte, Bear Creek, Bridger, Takini, Cherry Creek, LaPlant, and Green Grass. On Thursday, March 25th, the team will be in Swiftbird, Black Foot, and White Horse. Anyone who is tested or gets vaccinated is entered into a daily drawing for $25 and a weekly drawing for $100. IHS does not require an appointment to be vaccinated; they take walk-ins. If people aren’t able to get to IHS for a vaccine, they should call Field Health or the COVID hotline (964-0563) to be scheduled for the next vaccine day in their community.
We are also working with all schools on Cheyenne River to set up vaccination events in schools for staff and students 16 or older.
There is a major difference between side effects and adverse events. Side effects are the expected secondary symptoms caused by a medication. Adverse events are unexpected effects caused by a medication. What side effects do you see in people who get the COVID vaccine, and have you seen any adverse events from the COVID vaccine?
The most common side effects we’re seeing in our population are a sore arm, fatigue, body aches and feeling unwell. These side effects usually only last 24-48 hours.
IHS and Tribal Health have given over 4,600 vaccines and there have been zero adverse events. If there were any adverse events from a vaccine, we are required by law to report to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). We’re happy we haven’t had to do this yet.
What do you want people to know about the COVID vaccine?
We’ve had plenty of calls on the hotline about misinformation people read on social media. One common question is about the vaccine causing infertility. There is no truth to that rumor. Some callers ask about the vaccine development being rushed. We explain that the mRNA vaccine technology has been in the works for years – it’s not new. Actually, vaccines like the Pfizer and Moderna COVID shot have fewer preservatives and are better for you than some older vaccines. It’s important for people to get information about the vaccine from a good source or just call the COVID hotline to have their questions and concerns addressed.
Has the vaccine changed your approach to contact tracing or testing for COVID?
If people have concerns about symptoms or exposure to COVID, I would encourage them to get tested even if they are vaccinated for COVID. The vaccines we’re giving are 100% effective against severe COVID, and 95% effective against mild COVID.
People who are fully vaccinated don’t have to quarantine if they are exposed, and it is safe for them to gather in small groups without a mask. The sooner we reach herd immunity, which is when the majority of our population is vaccinated, the sooner we can get to a new normal.
At the end of the interview, Danette asked to give a shout out to the CRST Tribal Health staff for their dedication to preserving the health of the Cheyenne River community. She said, “We have a very small staff, but they’ve accomplished a lot in the past year!”