By George A. Vascellaro, D.O. – Chief Medical Officer for Citizen Potawatomi Nation Health Services and board-certified Osteopathic Family Physician

In August, the COVID-19 pandemic with the delta variant spike and its stress on all of health care was reaching the summit. COVID-19 cases had been spiking at Citizen Potawatomi Nation Health Services in all metrics. The health system is currently in crisis mode, doing everything possible to keep clinics, COVID-19 tents and immunization efforts open.

All hospitals in Oklahoma are currently full — tribal and non-tribal — with seriously ill COVID-19 patients, approximately 90 percent of whom are unvaccinated. So are most of the hospitals in all the surrounding states. Part of what is scary now is that as of last week, all Oklahoma hospitals — tribal and non-tribal — were so full of COVID-19 patients that those with conditions such as heart attacks, strokes, emergency surgeries, etc. could not receive optimal care locally. My grandmother had a friend of the family in Fairview, Oklahoma, who needed emergency spleen surgery with blood transfusions and had to be flown to a hospital near Rochester, Minnesota, for care. Many COVID-19 patients are being transferred to out-of-state hospitals but pass away before arriving.

The feedback I’m getting from outside CPNHS is that many medical providers, especially in hospitals, are getting compassion fatigue/becoming calloused toward unvaccinated COVID-19 patients who would have had a 90 percent chance of never being hospitalized if they had taken one of the vaccines. Unlike the chatter I hear from hospitals and ER staff, the employee morale I observe at CPNHS is relatively very good as we have remained prepared, safe, current and have done our best to make sure the staff has gotten the mental breaks they have needed to continue running this crisis-care marathon. I could go on an on about how bad current things are locally with the COVID-19 pandemic, but I don’t want to hammer the nail in past flush. I think you not only get my point already, but also suspect that most have unfortunately already experienced these emotional situations with families and friends by now.

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, reportedly said the COVID-19 pandemic may extend through the spring of 2022. I think that is generally accurate with smaller new case spikes two weeks after holidays but at a far lower, more easily managed rate. I think delta variant will remain the dominate strain, as it will out-compete the others at this time. I am not really worried about the lambda variant as it started circulating in the U.S. months before delta.

I’m sure there will be more media-sensationalized variants to come, but by then, most of the U.S. will be well over 100 percent immune when combining natural immunity plus vaccinations, as many will have immunity from both. By the time you read this in the October 2021 Hownikan, CPNHS, Oklahoma and the United States should have made it through the last severe COVID-19 peak of probably the entire pandemic — past, present, and God willing, future — as again the overall combined immunity should be more than sufficient to prevent significant spikes from most strains with minor genetic mutations. Nevertheless, CPNHS COVID-19 plans to maintain safety processes and COVID-19 tents until at least May of 2022/after schools let out for summer.

CPNHS began giving COVID-19 vaccine boosters around Sept. 20, 2021, through in-clinic visits, strike teams and mass vaccination events. These booster vaccinations have been for Pfizer and Moderna, given five to eight months after the second immunization. Priority for third doses at CPNHS is being given to those who received their vaccinations from our previous efforts.

As things by the time this article is published should be getting much better, now would be the appropriate time to give many, many thanks. I want to start by thanking the God and my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for watching over us all and giving us the wisdom and skill to endure. I thank my spiritual rock of a wife, Stacey, and wonderful children, Ethan, Alec, Tori and Avery, whom I love and cherish and whom providing for is one of the main reasons I have worked for so long and hard — all of whom observed firsthand the unprecedented professional and community pandemic leadership stressors I was dealing with day and night the past 18 months. Many times, they too didn’t like or initially agree with the medical administrative opinions I was confidently preaching based on front-line knowledge, current objective data and experience, but I always still felt loved and needed as a husband and father. They knew I was 100 percent convicted to lead CPNHS through this generational event and keep its valued, multi-pronged health care services operational while also keeping patients, employees, tribal members, their families and communities as safe as I knew how. Their support helped me do this with a clear conscious and allowed me to sleep at night and complete my labor without regrets once the pandemic is over.

As CPNHS’ Chief Medical Officer, I want to start thanking CPNHS’ three other hardworking directors I have worked with daily. These include Lauren Bristow MA, clinical operations director, Dr. Kassi Roselius, medical professional director, and Chris Skillings, health finance procurement director, for their leadership, dedication, persistence and adaptability to numerous curveballs this pandemic threw at us. Their active collaboration made getting through these pandemic peaks and unknowns possible while coming out stronger, both in our COVID-19 response and all the areas they lead.

Thanks need to go out to Richard Brown, CPN human resources director, and his human resources staff, Amanda Brown and Tonya Jarvis, who have been a critical collaborative part of the response and were integral to containing spread amongst Tribal employees and facilities. They worked tirelessly to keep departments open and limit COVID-19 from spreading to coworkers, vendors, patrons and their families.

Migwetch (Thank you) to our CPN Emergency Management Director Tim Zientek and his staff who also have been a critical collaborative part of CPNHS COVID-19 response, mass vaccination events and a guide to multiple FEMA assistance opportunities.

Migwetch to Jennifer Bell, CPN public information director, who helped communicate the status of COVID-19 at CPNHS and immunization events. She and her team were critical in our efforts to clearly communicate when and how these took place and made them as successful as possible.

Thanks to Stacey Bennett, CPN purchasing director, whose timely assistance helped keep CPNHS supplied with critical personal protective equipment and COVID-19 antigen tests when there were nationwide shortages.

Thanks to all CPNHS medical and administrative staff, not only for working our COVID-19 tents but also keeping our normal operations open. I simply couldn’t be more proud of everyone and really can’t think of the words to describe how proud and thankful I truly am.

A very sincere thanks to the leadership at OKC Indian Health Service, which includes Rear Adm. Watts, Rear Adm. Woitte, Capt. Kates, Capt. Wren, and others for steadily suppling CPNHS with our primarily Abbott COVID-19 testing instruments, testing supplies and our Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. We truly couldn’t have done it without this renewed and strengthened relationship.

Thanks to all the Citizen Potawatomi Nation directors and their staff for the prompt support to CPNHS’ acute needs and receptiveness to and implementation of guidance to keep their employees and patrons safe.

Thanks to my brother in Christ, Dr. Sean Ludlow, CPNHS’ urgent care coordinator, who has been a prayer warrior and my de facto pastor at work.

Finally, I need to thank the CPN tribal leadership again for their unwavering support for all involved in this pandemic response. Chairman John “Rocky” Barrett and Vice-Chairman Linda Capps have given nothing but consistent, receptive leadership and strong support to the Nation’s overall pandemic response. Without this, CPNHS could not have excelled and shined as we have throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. As I’m sure there are many more to thank publicly, please accept my sincere apologies.

I will step out on one final limb of hope that by the time you read this the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic will be over and all will be getting back to the lives we had originally planned and hoped for. Please continue to stay strong, forgive all, forget as much as you can and avoid exiting this pandemic with a calloused heart.

“Above all else guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Proverbs 4:23 (NIV)