TULSA, Okla. — On Oklahoma’s eastern border in Stilwell, the Cherokee Nation is turning an old Walmart into a medical grade PPE facility.
The entire building is getting retrofitted so it can make approved N95 masks right in the heart of the nation.
”It gives us a little bit of peace of mind knowing that my nurses, who have been on the front line through all of this, are going to have what they need,” said Dr. Emma Harp with the Cherokee Nation Health system.
Dr. Harp, a Stilwell native and Cherokee citizen, says 3,900 coronavirus cases came through the tribe’s health system since March.
"At the Cherokee Nation, we had been very fortunate to have adequate supplies during the entire pandemic," Dr. Harp said. "There’s a lot of people who have not been so fortunate. Early on, we were cautious to access to N95 masks, especially. That was a hot subject. As a facility, we were engaged in working with our departments, did calculations to make sure what we have, let’s secure these. Let’s make sure we’re not wasteful and that we’re able to provide our staff with the PPE that we need."
But the tribe isn’t taking any chances on having enough in the future, it will be making its own masks from the warehouse by the end of 2020.
The Cherokee Nation spans 14 counties in eastern Oklahoma. So, the tribe is ramping up its PPE efforts. Two facilities are going to help with the mask making materials and the storage and testing sites like the one in Stilwell.
This is how the Cherokee Nation is rolling out its coronavirus response plan after it received more than $400 million in CARES Act relief.
"This is all based on need. We’re responding to the need,”said Todd Enloe, Cherokee Nation's chief of staff.
Enloe is working to make sure a mask shortage never hits the nation like it did for so many communities in the spring.
"One of the things we struggled with was gaining access to the PPE and the materials that we needed to protect our healthcare workers and our employees and our citizens abroad," Enloe said. "So, realizing that this was a problem and a challenge inside the United States supply chain, we felt that we could help supplement that by providing PPE or mask making here in Stilwell.”
The virus hit the tribe hard. Oklahoma’s first reported coronavirus death back in March was a Cherokee citizen. Keeping Cherokee citizens safe from the deadly virus is a top priority for Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. Even for the country’s largest tribe, getting help from the federal government had its challenges.
"We had to fight for those dollars. So, even though Congress approved the CARES Act, we had to fight for those dollars to get out the door from the Treasury Department to the Cherokee Nation," Chief Hoskin said. "We even had to engage in some litigation when there was some funds that were frankly diverted to purposes they shouldn’t have been diverted to. We ultimately were successful in that. All of that put us behind in terms of getting dollars and getting them out to the community. So, not enough dollars, not dollars quick enough and yet, with what we had, we have done better than anyone.”
For the tribe, fighting the coronavirus is also about preserving their culture and native speakers after losing several elders to the virus.
"It is far from over. In fact, the spread is more dangerous now than it’s been in awhile, and we’ve got to do everything we can to remind people of this danger,” Chief Hoskin said.
Is the CARES Act funding working for you? If you're an enrolled member of a Native American tribe in our area, let us know by emailing NativeAmericaRecovery@kjrh.com.
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