The Flathead Reservation has managed to keep its COVID-19 infection rate lower than many other reservations. But as Montana has opened up, the number of cases has started to climb, prompting tribal leaders to explore new ways to remind people to stay safe.

On Friday, the Lake County-Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Unified Command Center reported that three individuals had tested positive for COVID-19, and a fourth is presumed positive awaiting test results. All four people had been together, so public health nurses could assume one had transmitted the virus to the others, so community spread is not yet a concern. Close contacts of the four people have been notified, tested and quarantined.

The cluster almost doubled the number of cases on the reservation to nine.

Prior to that, the CSKT recorded its first three cases during the last weekend in March. The people were immediately quarantined, and the occurrence prompted Lake County to join with the CSKT to create the Unified Command Center.

The reservation established shelter-in-place rules that remain in effect until June 29. And aside from two people who tested positive in April, things were quiet until last week.

Coincidentally, free COVID-19 testing will be available to all Mission Valley residents from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. The drive-through event will start in Arlee on Wednesday, and move through Pablo, Polson and Elmo on the successive days.

CSKT spokesman Robert McDonald said the timing of the testing had nothing to do with the recent cluster of cases. The Governor’s Office has been working with the CSKT for several weeks to schedule the drive-through clinics as part of Montana’s surveillance effort. Similar clinics have occurred on other reservations.

The testing is likely to reveal more cases.

On May 7, a man who traveled from out of state to do work on the reservation tested positive for COVID-19 but fortunately hadn’t had much contact with locals before returning home and wasn’t included in the tribal total.

Still, it illustrated the threat posed by out-of-state visitors, and the CSKT has been expecting a surge of new cases, either as tourists flood in or in the fall.

“It’s not if it happens, but when it happens,” CSKT tribal council chair Shelly Fyant said in a May 1 Unified Command Center video.

McDonald said the CSKT was concerned the disease would make an earlier showing as snowbirds returned home to the county. So there was a big messaging push warning them to be careful to use social distancing and quarantine for 14 days.

To reduce the number of visitors on the reservation, the CSKT has closed its recreational lands, such as the Mission Mountain Wilderness, and it’s uncertain whether they’ll open at all this summer, McDonald said.

Once the virus invades a reservation, it tends to be more deadly than elsewhere.

Indigenous people have a higher COVID-19 mortality rate than whites, Asians and Latinos, according to an analysis by APM Research Lab. In New Mexico, the Navajo Nation is suffering the worst, having lost more than 300 members to the disease. The Navajo are just 9% of New Mexico’s population but account for nearly 60% of coronvirus deaths.

Some reservations, such as the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, have placed checkpoints at the reservation borders to keep visitors out in an effort to keep their population alive.

The severity of the disease’s impact depends on conditions on a reservation, such the number of multi-generational households and the level of poverty, which can contribute to health issues.

In Montana, COVID-19 is starting to take a toll on the Crow Reservation, which is mostly in Big Horn County south of Billings, and the adjacent Northern Cheyenne Reservation. The first case turned up on April 2, and the reservations went into shutdown mode. But locals were still reporting out-of-state visitors on the Big Horn River and in the Pryor Mountains.

Since April, the number of cases in Big Horn County has recently surged to 47, seven more than Missoula County as of June 15. That includes two people who died, one on June 5 and another on June 13. Two other Crow members died in Yellowstone County in early May.

The medical professionals of the Lake County-CSKT Unified Command Center estimate that about 67% of the county’s population is in an at-risk category for contracting COVID-19, including almost 7,000 seniors and more than 4,600 who have medical issues including cancer, diabetes, or respiratory, heart and kidney diseases. Not everyone is Native American, but they’re all at risk.

However, the threat may not be restricted just to outsiders. Since Montana relaxed its restrictions, locals have begun to relax too.

“There’s concern around (Unified Command Center) leadership that half the population thinks we’ve returned to normal,” McDonald said.

Younger people tend to think that the crisis is over, but it’s the tribal elders, often their grandparents, who could pay the cost if there’s a surge now. The CSKT committee came up with the idea of a social media campaign to encourage teens to keep using prevention practices such as hand washing.

What emerged first was a video by young Artie Mendoza III – who goes by the name “KiidTruth” - that has CSKT kids rapping along with “wash your dirty hands” and “wear a mask.” The YouTube video went up on Friday, and by Monday, it had almost 1,300 views.

Other local artists will be featured in the future, and youth who create and post “challenge” videos could win a $100 gift card.

“We conceded quickly that our younger community members may not be moved to action by fliers and news updates,” said CSKT Councilwoman Charmel Gillin. “We tried to think of targeted approaches using our grassroots resources to catch the teens’ attention. Social media appeared to be a natural channel, and so far it’s been incredible to see the energy building behind this campaign.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at