When Nicole Anderson, Mille Lacs Band Commissioner of Health and Human Services, discussed responding to the pandemic, she had a metaphor to use, “ruddering a ship.” Over the last year, the sovereign nation along the shores of Mille Lacs has also been facing the throes of the pandemic, and building a response to this long-term problem has been one of making adjustments, but that response was not built alone. Anderson spoke with the Messenger alongside Monte Fronk, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Tribal Emergency Management Coordinator, and Beth Gruber, Director of Organizational Effectiveness with Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures, and the three shared how the Band community bore a collective effort to survive in the face of a year that has not been easy for anyone, Band member or otherwise.
INFORMATION SHARING – FROM THE START
Reflecting on the beginning of 2020, right as pandemic conditions were beginning to emerge, Fronk stated that one important principle TERC kept in mind was the sharing of information. “All of our members were getting information from different state, federal and regional agencies,” he explained, and the members worked to provide the most current information to each other for the good of the whole group. This sharing information allowed the committee to build a picture of what was coming and gauge and adjust their preparedness. Those discussions of information were started as early as January.
“And we knew it was going to come here,” Fronk added. “That was the biggest thing we all looked at, every commissioner, that it was going to end up on our tribal lands. We knew that it was an ill fact of life we were going to be affected by this.” Fronk further observed that the Band’s community is very social media-based, and, as TERC monitored COVID’s appearances in counties neighboring the Band’s districts, those channels were used to keep the community informed with the most current information. Fronk emphasized the importance of this communication in showing administrative awareness to the whole of the community and allowing TERC and the Band’s public relations team to guide them.
Even a year into the pandemic, Fronk said an almost overwhelming amount of information was constantly coming, and that information was still monitored and shared through pre-established channels.
PROVIDING COMPASSIONATE ANSWERS
A major concern Fronk spoke to was easing the fear and worry within the community. “Members of our community see the health of it everyday,” Fronk observed. Anderson added that particular concern was given for both the elders of the band community and those with compromised immune systems. “That was at the forefront of our decisions early on,” she said, “the safety of our community members and employees.”
Anderson further noted that the Band’s districts are spread out, and each required a different communication method. To ensure that community members without stable internet access were being communicated with, many messages were hand-delivered in the Band’s districts. Anderson described it as a “boots-on-the-ground effort to communicate with as many community members as we could.” Digital means were also used to distribute the information, from Facebook, YouTube, and the Band website. Fronk indicated that there was great cooperation across districts, and when TERC reached out, they found people generally willing to help with the effort of protecting their community.
Gruber credited the work of Mille Lacs Band Chief Melanie Benjamin, in taking time to regularly communicate with the public via YouTube addresses, distributing information both on the virus and the band’s emergency response efforts. Even as a non-tribal member herself, Gruber regularly tuned in, because she knew she’d get accurate, consistent information.
Anderson explained that the Band also took it upon themselves to do their own contact tracing for their members, employees and their households. While many other areas depended on the state’s contact tracing, she felt it was important for the community to see an internal effort. The call came directly from the Band’s public health director or one of her nurses, Anderson elaborated. “People are much more likely to answer the phone when it’s one of our departments,” she said, “versus an unknown number with a canned message.” Time was taken to talk over COVID information with those contacted, especially early on when public COVID information was less wild available and concrete. The contact tracing process also included following up people and keeping lines of communication open.
Additionally, Fronk pointed to the creation of a hotline within the Health and Human Services Department to allow people to call and speak directly with a nurse. Fronk emphasized that the line gave the community someone knowledgeable within the community that they could reach out to and trust. Later, as the pandemic led to loss, grief, isolation and loneliness in the community, a behavioral health line was established on the same principles. Fronk further noted that these services were being provided in addition to regular clinic and health services.
“I can’t even begin to explain the amount of time our staff has put in to be sure that, when someone’s afraid, they are getting a compassionate answer,” Anderson said, “That someone’s empathetic on the other end of the phone.”
QUARANTINE PACKS AND FOOD SECURITY
To aid with the quarantining process, Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures put together quarantine packs that they distributed to families under quarantine. These packs aimed to provide a family of four with supplies for 14 days and included shelf-stable food items, plastic containers for leftovers, and cleaning supplies. A total of 251 of these packs were deployed throughout the district as of the start of March.
In addition to these packs, aiding with food security in the community was another major concern. “Very early on,” Gruber elaborated, ‘TERC determined food security was a priority.” To help families who were unprepared to feed children who would normally be at school, Grand Casino staff pivoted to assisting with a new school lunch program. This program provided a sack lunch with a sandwich, a piece of fruit, water and a dessert item to students from three area schools. Basic supplies, like sandwich bags and water, to area schools. In total, 16,629 school meals had been provided as of the start of March.
To keep elders safe, Corporate Ventures has also provided a distribution of pantry items and frozen to the community elders. Gruber added that this process served as a great check-in point for public health, whose nurses helped deliver the distribution. As elders have been isolated during the pandemic, Gruber said these check-ins provided socialization as well. Initially a bi-weekly service, the distribution to elders has since transitioned to being a monthly occurrence.
Help was also extended to neighboring tribes. While Corporate Ventures usually distributes hams and pies locally during the Easter season, this past year, they expanded that opportunity through tribal connections in Grand Portage, Mahnomen, and Fond Du Lac to distribute thousands of hams and pies. These connections also extended down to the urban area, Fronk noting that Mille Lacs Band’s urban office was one of the first to establish a food security program during COVID. Leftover items were also distributed to other food shelves, Gruber noting Corporate Ventures’ good relationship with Ruby’s Pantry.
In many cases, Gruber noted, Corporate Ventures was able to acquire food due to their good relations with food vendors, such as US Foods. These relationships allow for food acquisition during the early pandemic period when supplies are scarce. Besides their specific pack distribution, Gruber said 3,000 miscellaneous supplies were also distributed as of the start of March.
THE PANDEMIC’S COURSE
Due to the Band’s swift action, Anderson said the first positive COVID case didn’t arrive on the reservation until summer. For there, the community observed a slow increase up until October through December, when the COVID numbers were at their worst. Since December, there has been a steady decline. Anderson observed that there was not a positive COVID case throughout the month of February. It was further observed that these changes in case rates fell in line with the rest of the state. Cumulatively, there had been 105 cases for Districts I and IIa, around Mille Lacs; 10 cases for District II, by McGregor; and 35 for District III, near Hinckley as of the start of March.
Gruber spoke on the shutdown at the Grand Casino, the first casino shutdown in the state, which she noted lasted for 77 days. That time was spent developing safety and sanitization protocols. Non-invasive thermal scanning was implemented at the doors, and “Absolutely, I felt it put us in a position where guests felt safe,” she said. The aim, she added, was to develop the right set of protocols the first time, so they wouldn’t need to do it again. Shutting down wasn’t a hard decision, Grubber said, because protecting guests and the community was an easy decision.
Looking back on COVID a year later, Anderson said the community now had a better understanding of the disease. Access to personal protective equipment has improved, and the effectiveness of social distancing and mask wearing have shown their effectiveness. While the community still takes the pandemic seriously, she said, they had learned a year’s worth of lessons dealing with COVID, and the focus is now directed towards providing vaccines to the whole of the community.
Faced with the year-long stress of the pandemic, Fronk believed the community has coped through its internal collaboration. “I hope that the community feels we’ve done everything possible to provide as close to normal services,” he said. And that work was still ongoing. Every single day, the emergency response team and the whole of the community have been, to quote Anderson, “adjusting the rudder,” adapting to new circumstances to prioritize the health and safety of the whole community.