By Evan Popp

As the first cases of coronavirus in the U.S. emerged on the West Coast in early 2020, Lisa Sockabasin, director of Wabanaki Public Health, knew the organization had to be ready.

That’s because Sockabasin and others at the health agency understood it was only a matter of time before COVID-19 reached Maine and started impacting tribal communities.

“At that point in time we said our communities are at risk, and we need to make sure we are as prepared as possible because this is coming,” Sockabasin said.

Sockabasin said the organization was concerned about the tribes served by Wabanaki Public Health because of the overall history of poor outcomes for Indigenous people during past widespread public health crises.

“We knew that Indigneous people did not fare well in global pandemics,” Sockabasin said.  “H1N1, SARS, we had recent examples of how these viruses — these pandemics, epidemics — disproportionately hit Indigenous populations with both morbidity and mortality.”

Getting prepared

Sockabasin said Wabanaki Public Health found that past poor health outcomes for Indigenous people during public health events were, in large part, due to problems with infrastructure and not having adequate supplies to keep people in tribal communities safe.

As a result, the group launched a campaign early in the pandemic to ensure Indigenous people in Maine had the necessary supplies this time around.

One such effort was sewing thousands of masks to ensure that anyone in the Wabanaki Public Health District — which serves four Tribes — could obtain a face covering. Sockabasin said another initiative involved securing sufficient amounts of cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer for Indigenous people to use.

In addition, Sockabasin said Wabanaki Public Health moved quickly to ensure tribal communities had clean drinking water. She noted that is a particular concern at the Passamaquoddy reservation at Pleasant Point, which has for decades not had access to clean water.

“So from day one we said, ‘OK, let’s do what we can to secure what we need for water,’” she said. “So we started working with Good Shepherd Food Bank, we started working with other partners, big box stores … and secured as much water as possible.”

Wabanaki Public Health moved early in the pandemic to help tribal communities with food security. | Photo courtesy of Wabanaki Public Health

The organization also focused on food security in tribal communities, which Sockabasin said was an area of concern even before the pandemic. She said Wabanaki Public Health worked with local farmers to supply food to those in need.

“We were pretty proud that we were able to secure a lot of the foods needed to make the pandemic much more bearable than other emergencies have been in the past,” she said.

As a method of checking whether those measures were working, Sockabasin said the organization developed a color-coded system for older residents to communicate with health officials from a distance.

That system involves residents holding different colored pieces of construction paper up to a window to send various messages to Wabanaki Public Health, Sockabasin said. Red paper means someone needs immediate assistance and yellow means they are short on supplies.

But along with issues of food security and medical supplies, the pandemic has also spurred concerns around mental health as people distance from one another. Sockabasin said that’s why Wabanaki Public Health also included blue construction paper as part of the project.

“That was a signal for ‘I need human contact today, I just need someone to check in on me,’” Sockabasin said. “And so we were able to do that from a distance.”

‘They’ve done a really commendable job’ 

According to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Indigenous communities in the state have fared comparatively well when it comes to COVID-19 cases. As of Dec. 23, Indigenous people — who are estimated to be 0.6 percent of the state’s population — made up only 0.3 percent of Maine’s COVID-19 cases, that Maine CDC data showed.

That comes as Indigenous people around the country — such as those living in Navajo Nation — have been hit hard by the pandemic.

A piece of construction paper taped to a resident’s window as part of Wabanaki Public Health’s Color Paper Project | Photo courtesy of Wabanaki Public Health

However, Sockabasin said as with many parts of Maine, which has experienced a surge in cases in the latter part of 2020, Wabanaki Public Health is seeing COVID-19 in nearly every tribal community.

Sockabasin added that public health data when it comes to Wabanaki people in Maine is often flawed and has the potential to underestimate the burden of an illness like COVID-19.

Still, Sockabasin said she is confident that the measures taken during the pandemic have helped to lower the impact of the virus on the state’s Indigenous communities.

“The actions that the tribal chiefs and their tribal health directors as well as Wabanaki Public Health took will result in improved outcomes for Wabanaki people,” she said.

Maulian Dana, Penobscot Nation ambassador, agreed. She praised Wabanaki Public Health’s approach to combating the virus, saying it has focused on equity.

“I think they’ve done a really commendable job,” Dana said. “It’s great having one organization that serves all the tribal communities and does so in a really equal way across the board. I think they’ve really met this challenging year head on and really excelled at what they do.”

Rep. Rena Newell, the Passamaquoddy Nation’s tribal representative in Augusta, also praised Wabanaki Public Health.

“Their approach has been outstanding,” Newell said. “Certainly their work has contributed to the response regarding the pandemic in each tribal community.”

Getting ready for vaccine distribution

After a difficult year spent trying to ward off the worst of the pandemic, Sockabasin said Wabanaki Public Health has shifted its focus to vaccination now that doses have started arriving in Maine.

“We are working collaboratively with the tribal health directors to ensure that we understand where the community is in terms of readiness so we can prepare for that,” she said.

State government is also working with Indigenous people to ensure the vaccine process goes smoothly, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said during a media briefing in mid-December.

“I’m proud of the partnership and the relationship we’ve developed with tribal health leaders and with tribal leaders themselves as well as with our colleagues at Wabanaki Public Health. That relationship is continuing as we move into vaccine planning,” Shah said.

Sockabasin praised the state for working with tribal health officials during the pandemic, particularly around making sure Indigenous people in quarantine had sufficient resources and support.

But when it comes to the vaccine, Sockabasin said the state should have a category that specifically includes Indigenous people, which the Maine CDC’s draft plan currently does not.

“I sure hope that we can learn from history as well as recent experience that Indigenous people carry a very high risk of both morbidity and mortality, meaning they should have their [own] special and individual category,” Sockabasin said.

Still, as the state and tribal communities move into the vaccination phase of the pandemic, Sockabasin said she’s confident that Wabanaki Public Health can continue to help Indigenous people with their health needs. She said that’s because of the organization’s staff — which includes both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

“We just have an amazing team,” Sockabasin said. “Our success comes from the family we’ve created.”

Top photo: Volunteers for Hannaford deliver water to a tribal community. | Courtesy Wabanaki Public Health