Response Committee Remains Vigilant in COVID-19 Prevention


The Tribal Emergency Response Committee (TERC) began meeting in early March to evaluate and coordinate preparedness in response to the world-wide outbreak of COVID-19, and as the situation has developed, TERC members have continued to take action in order to protect Band members and communities.

When the TERC first met to discuss COVID-19, there were no confirmed positive cases in Minnesota. On Monday, March 9, the TERC began preparing incident plans for each department as the arrival of COVID-19 in the state and closer to home appeared to be inevitable — sooner rather than later. The TERC planned to begin meeting every other day as COVID-19 crept ever closer to the Minnesota border.

On March 11, the TERC drafted a letter to Band members and employees with introductory information to use as basic precautions against COVID-19. By the end of the week, there was a dramatic shift in the views of the State regarding the spread of COVID-19. Minnesota Governor Tim Walz had announced he would be closing schools beginning Wednesday, March 18, for a least eight days while the state continued to plan for an outbreak. “We cannot wait until the pandemic is in our schools to figure things out,” Walz said, announcing the closure at a press conference. It was unknown at that time what the days and weeks ahead would look like.

At the same time, the Mille Lacs Band had already made the decision to temporarily close schools and Early Education on the reservation and outlying districts beginning March 17, prior to the Governor’s order, to sanitize every inch of every school. All Mille Lacs education programs were planning to be closed for in-person learning and would continue preparing for distance learning.

By Friday, March 13, the TERC had shifted into high gear with daily meetings, and on Saturday, March 14, Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin ordered the TERC to convene and begin emergency preparations. On Sunday, March 15, the Band Assembly passed the Emergency Management Act and the Chief Executive signed it into law, along with an Executive Order announcing a state of emergency for the Mille Lacs Band.

By March 23, the TERC was preparing for a statewide Stay Home order that was expected to come from the Governor’s office. That state order was issued and went into effect on March 27. The original order for the State was set to expire on April 10; however, the Governor extended that order until May 4.

Because Mille Lacs is a sovereign nation, the Governor’s executive order does not apply to the reservation and tribal trust land. As the state was planning for a Stay Home order, Mille Lacs Band leaders were forming the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s executive order for the reservation and trust land, which is similar to the Governor’s order. The Mille Lacs Band order will remain in effect until Band officials determine it is safe to lift the Executive Order, and even then, the decision to reopen will take into consideration the health and welfare of all employees, associates, patrons, Band members, and the communities in which the Band does business.

It is important to note that Grand Casino was the first tribal casino in Minnesota to issue a temporary closure — before any executive orders — due to the uncertainty of COVID-19, and to do its part to slow the spread of the virus in East Central Minnesota.

Since that time the TERC has been meeting on a regular basis, working closely with state, federal, and tribal entities to follow guidelines and policies to ensure the Mille Lacs Band is fully represented in preparedness. Members of TERC are in contact with scores of federal and state agencies on a daily and weekly basis within the Minnesota Departments of Health, Human Services, Public Safety, Natural Resources, Administration, and Education, as well as the federal Departments of Interior, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Treasury, Homeland Security, and FEMA. Chief Executive Benjamin has daily calls with the Governor’s Office, the tribal Chairpersons/Presidents of the other 10 tribes in Minnesota, and daily calls with federal and state officials across state and local government. Members of the TERC are also meeting with federal and state leaders to ensure funding opportunities are met. (See story on CARES Act on page 9.)

The Mille Lacs Band Health and Human Services depart- ment has been at the forefront. Among the many safety pre- cautions made at each clinic, HHS was quick to implement a 24-hour active nurse line (320-630-0855) and a separate men- tal health line (320-674-4384). HHS also implemented Telehealth — a way for patients to communicate face-to-face with their health care providers through computers and phone lines.

HHS has also been developing a preparedness plan should an outbreak occur on the reservation. While the Ne-Ia-Shing clin- ic on the reservation does not have the staff nor capability to treat critically ill patients in an Intensive Care Unit capacity, they do have the capability to test those who meet the criteria for COVID-19 testing, monitor those who are symptomatic, and refer patients to the appropriate health care facility where in- tensive care can be achieved.

The Public Health department under HHS has also been working diligently to maintain a healthy environment at the Assisted Living Units while taking care of the resident Elders and Elders living in private homes. The need to protect the health of our Elders is of the utmost importance due to the high risk level of many of the residents. Health officials continue to stress that those at high risk are Elders and those with under- lying health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, and respiratory illness.

The ALU closed the doors for visitors early on, but many residents continue to venture out to visit family and friends and run errands. Public Health encourages those who leave the ALU to abide by social distancing guidelines, wear a face mask when in a public setting, and continue to wash their hands often, or use hand sanitizer when hand washing is not an option. State health officials continue to encourage Elders to stay home because staying home slows the spread of the virus and saves lives.

Food delivery service continues for Elders in the program, and Elder food distribution sites have been set up in each dis- trict and the urban area in a coordinated effort between Public Health and Grand Casinos.

Programs under Community Development, OMB, and Tribal Courts continue to operate and adjust as the situation changes. At the time of this writing, the Stay Home Minnesota order is set to expire on May 4. The Mille Lacs Band Executive Order does not include an expiration date. The Governor has already begun to allow some businesses to reopen if they can safely do so under social distancing guidelines. Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures is planning to reopen Mille Lacs Band businesses in a very controlled manner with increased measures to protect all Associates, Guests, and communities. The dates and details of the reopening plans have not been finalized.

Governor Walz announced on Thursday, April 23, that schools will not resume in-person classes for the remainder of the school year. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe has also made the determination that Mille Lacs Band schools and Early Edu- cation will also remain closed. At the same time, the Governor also warned of an expected surge in COVID-19 cases as more testing becomes available, adding that people should brace for many more deaths and a possible fall resurgence of the virus in the state.

“I want to remind Minnesotans: The hardest days are ahead,” he said. “The climb is still up. We’re not near that peak yet.”
The TERC will continue to meet on a regular basis through teleconference and social distancing until the COVID-19 pan- demic is clear.