Miss. Choctaw Indians face greater coronavirus risks, officials say
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Miss. Choctaw Indians at Hard Rock Beach Club in Philadelphia in 2003.
AP Images

The Native American population in Mississippi is showing a disproportionately higher rate of coronavirus infections and deaths, according to state health officials. Members of the Choctaw Indian community in Mississippi say they are navigating both health and economic concerns as the pandemic continues.



There are just over 11,000 members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. The Indian reservation spreads across 10 counties and is comprised of 8 communities - mostly in the east central part of the state. Three counties Newton, Neshoba and Leake are part of the Choctaw reservation. And they have been under heightened restrictions because of rapid increases in coronavirus cases relative to their populations.

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs says Native Americans in Mississippi are almost 8 times more likely to become infected with the virus than any other ethnicity and are dying at a disproportionately higher rate.

“If we look at the mortality rate, the mortality rate among Native Americans is 174 per 100,000 compared to a mortality rate of 39 per 100,000 in African Americans and 21 per 100,000 in Caucasions,” said Dobbs. “So, much much higher.”

Dobbs says Native Americans in Mississippi have a coronavirus case rate of more than 1500 per 100,000 people. That’s compared to a rate of 834 in black Mississippians and 282 in whites. But why? Dr. Kerry Scott is the Interim Chief Medical Officer at the Choctaw Health Center in Philadelphia. He says much like African Americans, Indians share similar underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible.

“Within the Native American population there’s lots of diabetes, hypertension and those chronic conditions,” said Scott.

Scott says they are pinpointing most cases to two settings: community transmission and nursing homes.

The Choctaw Residential Center, a nursing home for tribal members, reported 20 residents dying from the coronavirus as of June 11. That’s the second largest number of deaths reported in a long term care facility in the state.

Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians Tribal Chief Cyrus Ben tested positive for the coronavirus in April. He says he didn’t experience any symptoms but self quarantined. Chief Ben says he’s concerned about outbreaks in the community. Historically, Native American families have lived in inter-generational housing.

“Having a number of occupants in a home is challenging to try to isolate depending on the space available and the control that you may have of exposure,” said Ben.

Ben says he’s worried about younger people contracting the virus and passing it along to their parents and grandparents. Choctaw Indians aged 21 to 40 make up 40% of coronavirus cases.

Dr. Scott says at this point the Choctaw Health Center is testing and treating COVID-19 patients and maintaining. But he says his biggest fear is what would happen if there’s a second wave of coronavirus infections on the reservation -- which he expects could be as soon as the end of summer.

“The frontline workers that we have currently have been working tirelessly since March when everything started,” said Scott.

“If they have a surge of patients, it’s going to be very difficult to keep their energy. And then once your energies start getting low people are more susceptible to getting sick,” he said.

“May have a shortage of healthcare providers.”

Tribal Chief Cyrus Ben.
Golden Moon Hotel and Casino, part of the Pearl River Resort, in Philadelphia, Miss. in 2018.
AP Images

Chief Ben says the tribe’s economy is taking a hit during the pandemic. They shut down resorts and casinos furloughing more than 2,000 associates.

“That has been a great impact and continues to do so because when the labor force in this area is who we rely upon, we do not want to put our employees, our associates or our guests at any kind of safety risk or health issues,” said Ben.

Ben says although furloughed from work, they’re continuing to pay for employees’ healthcare during the pandemic.

Reporter's note: June 19 11:04 AM The number of members in the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has been updated to just over 11,000.