A dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases throughout rural Minnesota — and in the District I community — led the Mille Lacs Band’s Tribal Emergency Response Committee (TERC) on November 12 to call for enhanced safety measures to protect our communities while continuing to provide necessary services to Band members.
The TERC voted unanimously to transition to virtual service delivery of all Band government, health, and education services that can be delivered in a virtual environment.
"COVID-19 continues to spread unchecked throughout much of Minnesota and is a growing threat to our reservation communities," said Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin. "Maintaining government services is critical to our Band members, but we must do so in a way that keeps everyone healthy and in the fight against this virus."
All Mille Lacs Band government buildings have been closed to the public, and essential employees have been ordered to work from home whenever possible. Staff who have critical work functions that must be performed in the office will be scheduled with staggered shifts, have separate dedicated offices to work from, or will otherwise socially distance. Sanitization of workspaces for anyone working in the office is being emphasized.
Tribally operated schools will operate through distance learning only, and in-school daycare services and before and after school programs are on hold or being conducted via Zoom conference.
The new orders went into effect on Monday, November 16, with no specific end date.
In a letter to Band member heads of household dated November 13, Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin and Secretary-Treasurer Sheldon Boyd shared the TERC’s decision while assuring Band members that their needs will still be met.
"The most critical services our Band members count on will continue to be provided," they said. "Our Ne-Ia-Shing clinic will continue to operate as well as all services of HHS and Aanjibimaadizing."
"Our snowplows and garbage services will continue. Our Tribal Court services will continue virtually, and our Tribal Police will still be patrolling our roads. Staff will continue to provide services online, by phone and by appointment. A list of important contact numbers is included in this mailing and is also available online and on Facebook."
Rural hot spots
The Chief and Secretary-Treasurer went on to describe the current COVID-19 surge and ask Band members to do their part to slow the spread.
"East-central Minnesota is now ground zero for the most rapidly spreading outbreak of COVID-19 in Minnesota, with Mille Lacs County having the highest rate of spread per capita in the entire state. Locally, 168 Band members, employees, and community members are now in quarantine due to having contracted COVID-19 or being exposed to someone with COVID-19. All three Band Districts are within 'hot spots' according to the State and the Centers for Disease Control."
The Mille Lacs Band took the virus very seriously since the start of the pandemic and responded swiftly with a stay home order and a mask mandate in government buildings. The state of Minnesota also acted quickly, but as initial efforts were successful and numbers improved, anti-mask disinformation and conspiracy theories spread, and residents became less careful about social distancing, mask-wearing, and hand-washing.
The upper Midwest has become a nationwide breeding ground for COVID-19 due to lackluster government response in some areas and blatant disregard of local, state, and federal guidelines in others.
The predictable result has been a growing wave of cases that are overwhelming rural hospitals and resulting in tens of thousands of infections and hundreds of deaths in the state in recent weeks.
In mid-November, Minnesota continued to set records for daily new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.
States that resisted imposing mask mandates for months, like North Dakota and Iowa, reversed course as cases surged and the health care system couldn’t keep up.
The Chief Executive and Secretary-Treasurer informed Band members of changes that went into effect beginning November 16:
— Entry to all Band buildings will be restricted,
— All Band functions will continue to be available online, by phone, and by appointment,
— Health and Human Services will continue to be available, with most health services being virtual, but also in-person by appointment with greater safety restrictions in place. Pharmacy pickup will remain the same.
— Early Education and K-12 Mille Lacs Band Education programs will move to all-distance learning.
— Daycare services will be closed.
— All Band government employees who are able to fully carry out their duties remotely will shift to a remote work environment.
— Housing Maintenance will continue on an emergency basis only, such as heating, water, and wastewater issues.
— The Office of Management and Budget will continue to provide essential services with further increased efforts toward a virtual and paperless environment.
— Additional furloughs may go into effect.
The letter concluded, "The Band government will continue embracing technologies to empower our workforce to work remotely while still engaging with Band members, delivering virtual services, and ensuring continuity of Band operations as much as possible. We are focused on delivering innovative solutions to support essential services because your safety and wellness is our top priority."
Youth: Help keep our Elders safe
"The State has reported that asymptomatic youth, teens and young adults aged 18-35 are currently the largest spreaders of this disease to their elderly parents and grandparents. These younger people are not sick, they do not have symptoms, and so they are unlikely to know they are positive for COVID-19, but they are infected and highly contagious. This is why Governor Walz is requiring the closure of bars and restaurants after 10 p.m. when these businesses are mainly visited by young adults. Please, continue to socially distance, wear masks, wash hands, and stay home as much as possible. Your safety is our top priority."
– Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin
– Secretary-Treasurer Sheldon Boyd.