The Makah Tribe was the first community in the state to shut down because of COVID-19. Now they’re more than halfway through a vaccine rollout and are hoping to reopen this summer. The remote nation in Northwest Washington has remained closed to visitors since mid-March, with a checkpoint on the only road in and out.
The Makahs’ extreme caution has kept the virus at bay. They had three individual cases in July. And then there was a small outbreak just before Thanksgiving, says chairman TJ Greene: seven cases - including one hospitalization - but no deaths.
Advanced medical care is not available on the reservation, so they have remained extremely cautious, only reopening their main industry – commercial fishing – in September. And they have kept restrictions on outside visitors even as they progressed to their own Phase 3 health directives, which allow all outdoor events and gatherings as long as social distancing and a mask requirement are in place. It allows indoor gatherings of up to 10 people with the same requirements. Businesses have been allowed to reopen, but only with approved safety plans. No indoor dining is allowed, only takeout.
“Since the 23rd of November, we haven't had another case. And a big thing in this is a testament to our community … is that there were no community transmissions of the virus during that outbreak,” Greene says.
That’s in contrast to the rest of the state, where Native Americans and Alaska Natives have been hospitalized at a rate three times higher than white people.
Greene says after COVID cases were confirmed in his community, the tribe did extensive contact tracing and required the entire household of each person with direct exposure to quarantine. This was above and beyond any CDC guidelines at the time. Greene thinks it’s part of what has kept them safe.
“We took that just one step further because it seems logical. It didn't make sense to us that someone with direct exposure to someone in their household could just continue to go to work and have public exposure,” he says.
Their goal is to prevent any deaths from the global pandemic. In recent weeks, they’ve been immunizing tribal members with the two-shot Moderna vaccine.
“And have so far vaccinated almost 700 of our adult population in the community,” he says.
That’s nearly two-thirds of the adult population that lives on the reservation in Neah Bay on the Olympic Peninsula in the northwest corner of the state.
Greene says they’re grateful for the steady supply of Moderna shots coming from the Washington Department of Health. He also points to the health directives listed in article 11 of the Treaty of Neah Bay, which the state is honoring. It specifies vaccinations as part of provisions for public schools.
“And the United States further agree to employ a physician to reside at the said central agency, or at such other school should one be established, who shall furnish medicine and advice to the sick, and shall vaccinate them,” the treaty states.
Vaccines are mentioned in most of the treaties with Coast Salish tribes in Washington (in article 14 of the Treaty of Point Elliott, article 10 of the Treaty of Medicine Creek, article 11 of the Treaty of Point No Point, and article 10 of the Quinault Treaty).
Greene says it’s easy to forget the historical context. Negotiations for these treaties took place after the Makahs and other Washington tribes had lost about 90 percent of their populations to disease.
“The 1855 Treaty was signed very shortly after devastating smallpox outbreaks. So I don't know how new those medical treatments were at that time. But obviously, our forefathers knew that Western medicine had some tools that could help save lives,” he says. “And that's what we're trying to do out here at Neah Bay.”
Greene got his second shot on Wednesday and messaged Thursday night that he was feeling fine.
“Just a tender arm. So far,” he texted. He studied up extensively to make sure he felt comfortable with the workings of the vaccine before taking his first dose. He says experiencing flu-like symptoms after the second dose is a good sign because it indicates that the immune response has been triggered.
Sharing this information is important because, he says, some of the younger members of his tribe have been skeptical and put off getting available vaccines.
“I don't really know the exact reasoning for that, whether that's just the stuff out on social media or what they're able to get off the news wires and that sort of thing playing into that,” he says. “But the older demographic is showing up and getting their vaccinations done.”
Greene says they will be watching case numbers locally and statewide as they consider when to reopen their reservation to the public. The popular resort they operate has been closed since March, which is a huge economic hit to his nation. The Makah Tribe depends primarily on the natural resource industries of fishing and timber for its revenue. But next in line is tourism.
“That's certainly a tough one. There's millions of dollars -- I think close to $3 million -- that we lost in revenue from those operations last year,” he says. "It's not just our resorts, but that's also our local fuel station and minimart.”
Some federal aid has been available to help sustain tribal members hardest hit.
Informally, Greene says the council has been telling people that they hope to re-open in June. But that will depend on health data, with the ultimate goal of keeping their people safe and preventing any deaths from COVID.