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Montana Tribe Hoping To Finally Increase Coronavirus Testing


It can still be tough to get a coronavirus test, especially in tribal communities. Montana is trying to change that with free mass surveillance testing events. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from one on the Flathead Reservation.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Waiting in line outside the Salish and Kootenai tribal college, 74-year-old Eric Van Maanen is grateful to finally get a coronavirus test.

ERIC VAN MAANEN: A month ago, I just had a heart attack, too. So old plus heart attack, so I'm at high risk. So it's good to come and get it done.

SIEGLER: Neither he, nor his wife Francine are showing any symptoms, so this is just for peace of mind.

FRANCINE VAN MAANEN: Yes. We just found out today that some person passed away that we know of, and that that influx of their relatives from Washington came in. Some of the people brought it in from Washington.

SIEGLER: The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes still have a shelter-in-place order. But the Flathead Reservation is carved up into a patchwork of non-native and native-owned property, making enforcement difficult.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Three cars - one, two, three.

SIEGLER: Nearby, tribal chairwoman Shelly Fyant says the number of infections here is low, but she expects that to change.

SHELLY FYANT: You know, we're on the route between Yellowstone and Glacier. Now that they've opened up, we're seeing a lot of out-of-staters.

SIEGLER: Almost 2/3 of the tribe's members are already considered vulnerable health-wise. COVID is just the latest crisis to expose health gaps between Native and white populations in states like this.

FYANT: So we look at this mass testing event as giving us baseline data because we have no data to work off of. People were only getting tested if they were symptomatic.

SIEGLER: There are wide disparities in testing even within Indian country due to lack of infrastructure.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Are we all done?


SIEGLER: Organizers were pleased with the turnout here. But in the wider community, Francine Van Maanen thinks people still aren't taking the virus seriously.

F VAN MAANEN: I don't think they're taking their precautions as much as they should, because they go out, and they go shopping, and they go gambling. And all of these places are exposed other people.

SIEGLER: The Van Maanens will wait up to seven days for their results, but they don't mind. They don't go out much because they think Montana reopened too soon. Kirk Siegler, NPR News on the Flathead Reservation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALABAMA SHAKES' "ALWAYS ALRIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.