Masks recommended to protect vaccine immunity

Grant D. Crawford, Tahlequah Daily Press, Okla.
·3 min read

May 4—While area medical facilities haven't seen the surge of patients they did during the peak of COVID-19 infections, safety protocols persist for both employees and visitors.

At Cherokee Nation Health Services, the mandate issued by Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. in May 2020 remains in effect. All staff and visitors at the tribe's government facilities and health centers are still required to wear facial coverings.

"Our patients and staff understand the benefit and the important of mask wearing to protect themselves and others," said CNHS Executive Director Dr. R. Steven Jones. "It's an expectation of Cherokee Nation Health Services to follow CDC guidelines and keep everyone visiting our health centers safe."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released new guidance on mask usage, stating those who have been vaccinated for the virus can visit with other vaccinated people indoors, without a mask; visit unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe COVID-19 illness, without a mask; can participate in outdoor activities without a mask, except for in crowded conditions; and don't need to be tested before or after domestic travel.

Also according to the guidance, those who have been vaccinated and are symptomatic can refrain from testing after a known exposure, refrain from quarantining after a known exposure, and can refrain from routine screening.

Dr. David Gahn said during the tribe's public health subcommittee meeting last week that understanding exactly what the CDC is trying to say can be difficult.

"What they're really saying is that if you're immune to COVID-19 because of vaccine, you need to protect that immunity," he said. "Every time that I'm exposed to COVID-19, that gives the virus an opportunity to find a way to beat my immune system, and if it succeeds, then I'm going to pass it to someone else who's vaccinated. So it's a risk benefit."

The area's nursing homes and senior living facilities continue to require masks, as well. However, at Go Ye Village, residents are allowed to take their masks off when seated and dining in the dining hall.

Things haven't changed too much at the Cherokee County Health Department, although it has opened for regular services again. The department has a policy from its central office that requires staff to wear masks, even if they've been vaccinated. The mask requirements remains in effect for visitors and clients, too.

The CCHD follows the CDC's guidelines, and Kristin Carollo, public information officer, said the department still recommends wearing a mask — especially if people are going to be around others who have not been vaccinated.

"Now if you are in company with people where everyone is fully vaccinated, that's a little bit different," she said. "You can remove your mask then, but if you're out in public amongst the general population or at an event, whether it's inside or outside, there's still that recommendation, just because you don't know who is vaccinated or not vaccinated."

In January, as vaccine distribution had already begun, CCHD was inundated with phone calls to the point that staff were overwhelmed. A steady flow of phone calls to the department persists, but not to the degree that callers won't be able to get through.

Now that the health department is offering its regular services again, on top of COVID-19 testing and vaccines, clients are asked to call ahead to schedule an appointment. It's possible for people to schedule an appointment on the day of the call if it's not too late in the day.

The CCHD is open Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., and 1 to 5 p.m. For more information, call 918-456-8826.

Northeastern Health System could not be reached by press time.