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Southern Ute tribal member Tyson Thompson gets his COVID-19 test administered on Jan. 25, 2022, by SunUte Director, Robin Duffy-Wirth, who got trained and certified to assist with administering testing for the tribe. (Jeremy Wade Shockley, The Southern Ute Drum)

The Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Indian Tribes in southwestern Colorado have revived coronavirus restrictions on gatherings, hoping to quell coronavirus case numbers that have risen to the highest point since the pandemic began in 2020, according to tribal spokespeople. 

The Ute Mountain Ute tribal council Monday imposed its second-most stringent coronavirus precautions — Code Red — after seeing a rapid increase in infections driven by the contagious omicron variant. The tribe shifted to Code Orange policies earlier in January after being in the less restrictive Code Yellows since May 2021, general counsel Peter Ortego said. 

“January was a bad month for us,” Ortego said. “We went into Code Orange because we were seeing an increase, and that increase didn’t stop.”

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe, with 1,500 enrolled members, also returned to its second-most restrictive “Safer at Home” policies Jan. 6, citing a recent surge in infections. 

As of Feb. 9, 329 members of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe have tested positive since the pandemic began. More than 790 people have tested positive at the Southern Ute Health Center, with the largest weekly increase to that point — 75 new cases, including 33 tribal members — occurring between Jan. 19 and Jan 25, tribe spokeswoman Lindsay Box said

In October 2020, the tribe reported just six positive cases among tribal members. 

The new Code Red requirements — which include limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings and a nighttime curfew — come as mask mandates are falling by the wayside across Colorado, including in Denver, Adams and Arapahoe counties. 

More children have tested positive, Ortego said, attributing that to exposure at schools where masks are not required

“We’re very concerned about the possibility of COVID coming into this very, very small community — Towaoc is only about 1,300 people — and so if it spreads here it could be really, really bad,” Ortego said. Towaoc, near Cortez, is the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe capital. “And so the tribe has been concerned about that very real possibility that a child could get infected at school and then bring it to their home in Towaoc where they might expose vulnerable people.”

Native Americans are more than twice as likely to die from the coronavirus than non-Hispanic whites and are more than 3 times as likely to be hospitalized, according to a 2022 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

The tribe’s Code Red restrictions also require the tribe’s couple hundred employees to get a booster shot and stay within 75 miles of the reservation, unless an exception is granted. 

There have been fewer hospitalizations among the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, consistent with the findings of studies looking at omicron infections worldwide. 

Southwestern Colorado has seen an uptick in the omicron variant of COVID-19 in recent weeks, with the San Juan Basin Public Health agency warning it was spreading at “unprecedented levels” in La Plata and Archuleta counties in January. 

On Jan. 11, the agency reported more positive cases and COVID-19 transmission than at any point in the pandemic. Contact tracers no longer had the capacity to call everyone who tested positive due to the high number of new infections, the agency said. 

Southern Ute Health Center Nurse Joy Miller administers a swab to test for COVID-19 on the final day of the tribe’s two-day testing event, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. (Jeremy Wade Shockley, The Southern Ute Drum)

The number of new cases has dramatically receded in La Plata County since mid-January, but remains higher than in previous months. 

Vaccines and monoclonal antibody treatments, that can help stave off severe illness among some people with COVID-19 are available for free, the agency said. 

The tribes have responded aggressively to the coronavirus, with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe closing checkpoints to limit entry and setting a nightly curfew in March 2020. Residents had to stay within a 25-mile radius of the reservation. With limited Wi-Fi, the tribe set up a hot spot in a parking lot where students did homework and attended virtual school. 

The vaccination rate among Ute Mountain Ute tribal employees is almost 100%, Ortego said. At least eight tribal members have died since the start of the pandemic. The tribe has about 2,130 enrolled members. 

“This is not a wealthy community, so you often see a lot of people living in one home, you might see multiple generations living in one home, you might have one home where there’s both children and there’s elders and there’s other people vulnerable,” Ortego said. “The tribe has really done everything it can to protect its community.” Employees have been paid with federal relief funding even when coronavirus precautions ground most in-person business operations to a halt, he said. 

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe immediately declared a state of emergency when the pandemic began and imposed a “Stay at Home” order that lasted 14 months. Tribal leadership required the use of face coverings, and has organized mass testing and mass vaccination clinics. 

The limits on large gatherings have changed the way the tribe does business, celebrates and practices its culture, Box said, but they have adapted. 

The tribe has reported three deaths.

Southern Ute Health Center Nurse Joy Miller prepares to administer a swab test for COVID-19 on the final day of the tribe’s two-day testing event, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. (Jeremy Wade Shockley, The Southern Ute Drum)

“The Southern Ute Indian Tribe has been lucky compared to other tribal nations in Indian Country,” Box said. But as a smaller tribe, the “passing of any tribal member has significant impacts.”

Under the “Safer at Home” policies now in place, going to the grocery store, school and restaurants is permitted. Those in vulnerable populations are instructed not to go to work. Visiting non-household members in hospitals or long-term care facilities is not allowed. Gatherings are limited to 10 people or fewer. There is a 25-person limit on indoor venues, with capacity restricted to 25%. For outdoor locations, there is a 50-person limit. 

Tribal Chairman Melvin Baker in a statement said the decision to return to tighter restrictions was made to protect the tribe’s language, culture and elders. He encouraged people to get vaccinated. Tribal elders preserve traditions, culture and language, and ensure they are passed down to younger generations, Box explained.

“The quicker we move to the more restricted phase, the sooner we are able to control the spread of the virus within our tribal community,” Baker said. 

Shannon Najmabadi covered rural affairs and the rural economy for The Colorado Sun from 2021-2023.

Email: Twitter: @ShannonNajma