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Mississippi Choctaw Chief Declares State of Public Health Emergency Over COVID-19

Chief Cyrus Ben - Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians - Mississippi Free Press
Choctaw Chief Cyrus Ben announced Saturday, April 18, on Facebook that he is positive for COVID-19. Photo courtesy Cyrus Ben via Facebook.

Tonight, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians Tribal Chief Cyrus Ben issued a State of Public Health Emergency Declaration for the next 30 days due to the spread of the novel coronavirus on tribal lands in the state.  The emergency order, posted on the tribe’s Facebook page at about 9 p.m., came after the Tribal Council of the MBCI today approved a new ordinance modifying Title VIII of the Choctaw Tribal Code by adding the Emergency Health Powers Code. The code, in turn, allowed Chief Ben to declare the state of emergency.

COVID-19 has hit Mississippi tribal lands hard, including the chief, who announced on April 18 that he had tested positive for the virus.

As of today, May 21, the tribe had confirmed 373 infected members who were eligible for services at the Choctaw Health Center, as well as 21 deaths. The order allows the chief medical officer of the health center to order individuals to “voluntarily isolate or quarantine” and then seek Tribal Court enforcement for those who do not comply.

Chief Ben’s ordinance took a decidedly different tone from State of Mississippi leadership, which is steadily moving to reopen the state. In the order, he said the “conditions are expected to worsen due to the person-to-person transmission throughout Mississippi and MCBI’s tribal lands,” adding that the “conditions will significantly impact the life and health of tribal members as well as the economy of the Tribe.”

The tribe had already announced that its casinos and resorts would not be reopening Memorial Day as many facilities and businesses are planning to do. The order said that “all available actions must be taken to reduce the spread and alleviate the impact of COVID-19 on MBCI’s tribal lands.” The tribe reported yesterday that 138 tribal members infected with COVID-19 had recovered.

The order also pointed out that the Mississippi State Department of Health had announced earlier today that the state had reached 12,222 known COVID-19 cases with 580 deaths as of May 20.

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