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Dr. Anthony S. Fauci is seen at the White House on March 16, 2020. Photo: D. Myles Cullen / White House
Tribes host Dr. Fauci as COVID-19 crisis continues in Indian Country
‘One of the areas that I see it hitting us is the loss of language speakers’
Thursday, December 10, 2020

The most recognizable public health official in America will visit with leaders from two Lakota tribes in South Dakota next week.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the most visible federal expert on the coronavirus, will speak to leaders from the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe on December 14. The meeting takes place virtually via Zoom, said Kevin Killer, the recently inaugurated Oglala Sioux president.

An organization that conducts health research on the two reservations, Missouri Breaks Industries Research Inc. based in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, arranged the virtual meeting, Killer said. Eagle Butte is based at Cheyenne River.

He said he’s hopeful the meeting will give tribal leaders a chance to ask questions of one of the premiere experts on the coronavirus and gain a better understanding of how the coronavirus might affect tribal nations in the coming months.

“We’ll just do a check-in, get an update about where does he see COVID and the impact and all that kind of stuff,” Killer said. “It’s a unique opportunity to have one of the nation’s leading doctors that’s been working on this issue for the past year-and-a-half sit down and have him prioritize and reach out to the Great Plains.”

He said he also hopes to discuss the timeline for when the Oglala Sioux Tribe might receive COVID-19 vaccines. More than 2,100 reservation residents have tested positive for the virus, including 188 active cases as of Wednesday and 38 total deaths.

“It’s lesser than the surrounding areas, the cases, but we’re still impacted because other states, other municipalities don’t have any mask mandates in place,” Killer said. “It is affecting us.”

South Dakota currently has the highest per capita death rate in the country at 18.7 deaths per 100,000 people in the past seven days, and its governor, Kristi Noem, has been criticized by public health officials for refusing to enact a statewide mask mandate.

Killer said the virus has taken some of his tribe’s most culturally versed elders.

“One of the areas that I see it hitting us is the loss of language speakers, the loss of knowledge keepers,” he said. “It is kind of unfortunate that there is that element of it.”

He said the tribe currently isn’t planning any upcoming lockdowns, though he expected to revisit the possibility of future lockdowns after visiting with Dr. Fauci on Monday.

“I’m sure that after we meet with Dr. Fauci we’ll have a better estimate of where we can have that conversation,” he said.

As part of the incoming Joe Biden administration, Dr. Fauci will serve as Chief Medical Adviser on COVID-19 to the Democratic president. He will also remain in his role as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“I’ve seen him take on HIV/AIDS, H1N1, Ebola, Zika, COVID-19, and every infectious disease in between, over his nearly forty years of service to our country,” Biden said on Tuesday as he prepares to take the highest office in the land. He further described Dr. Fauci as “trusted. A truth teller. A patriot.”

“Like every good doctor, he will tell me what I need to know, not what I want to know,” Biden said during a press conference in Wilmington, Delaware, where he is running his presidential transition.

Dr. Fauci delivered a pre-recorded message at the news conference. He supported Biden’s call for 100 days of mask-wearing following the January 20, 2021, presidential inauguration.

“I have been through many public health crises before, but this is the toughest one we have ever faced as a nation,” said Dr. Fauci. “The road ahead will not be easy. We have got a lot of hard and demanding work to do in the next year.”

According to the Indian Health Service, a federal agency, the region that includes South Dakota has been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus. As of December 8, the date for which the most recent data is available, 15.4 percent of tests in the Great Plains Area have returned COVID-19 positive in the last seven days.