GRIC Employees Fully Return to Work in Wake of Lower COVID-19 Cases

Community Schools Also Prepare for Students’ Return to In-person Learning

Emma Hughes

Gila River Indian News


After returning to their workplaces in phases over the past year, Gila River Indian Community governmental employees returned in full force on March 14 now that COVID-19 cases have decreased significantly in the Community and across the state. Arizona has a 12.3% positive rate and a total of 1,992,471 positive cases as of March 16, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.


In March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic, GRIC’s executive orders initiated mask mandates, stay-at-home orders and the tribal governmental shutdown that led employees to begin working from home to limit in-person interactions and slow the spread of COVID-19.


In April 2021, the Tribal Government Return to Work Plan was approved and began partial re-opening, allowing departments to function with only 25 to 75% of staff teleworking, based on the changing conditions of the pandemic.


Crucial departments and services like the District Service Centers remained at 100% to assist and serve the Community throughout the pandemic. 


“As we ease in to in-person meetings, open gyms and computer labs, [the] Community Services Department will always ensure safety first for everyone,” said Laurie Thomas, Community Services Department Director. 


Thomas said District Service Center staff limits in-person interactions for the safety of staff and community members and to allow services to continue. 


Now, full operations have begun to resume throughout the Community while maintaining COVID-19 safety measures and precautions from the Tribal Health Department (THD). 


“Some elders were excited to return and interact with others they had not seen,” Thomas said. However, she added that others were saddened to return, knowing the Community lost so many lives to the virus and many elders will no longer be part of the daily activities at the Elder Centers.


Like the rest of the country, the Community in January experienced a surge in positive cases, but has since seen a turnaround.


“With the phase[d] approach, we will be able to transition into a different phase if we begin to experience a surge in positive cases,” said Candelarian Preston, Director of the Tribal Health Department.


Employees must go through a health screening at the beginning of each work day and are required to wear proper personal protective equipment (PPE), provided by GRIC’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM), when conducting services.


Visitors also must complete a health screening prior to entering any tribal government building or department. All entities, organizations and departments are required to report any positive COVID-19 cases immediately to THD.


“Our current 14-day percent test rate is 0.4%. This indicates positive cases have decreased substantially for the Community; therefore, the risk of infection has lessened,” said Preston. 


Of the 14,682 positive COVID cases reported by THD as of March 15, 6,996 were among GRIC members and 7,686 were non-members, with 134 deaths among GRIC members. Only seven positive cases were reported between March 7 and March 13, according to the THD’s COVID-19 data report.


COVID-19 surveillance testing must be done for all employees on a biweekly basis, regardless of vaccination status. If positive cases in GRIC continue to decrease, surveillance testing may only be required for those who have not received the COVID vaccine or have not been fully vaccinated, according to Preston.


Individuals are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving their second dose of either Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or two weeks after receiving the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. A booster (third dose) is recommended when eligible. 


Along with the full return-to-work for employees, Executive Order No. 14 was issued with revisions that have reduced other COVID restrictions in the Community. 


The mask mandate has been lifted in some areas but masks are still required while inside tribal governmental buildings or Community schools. 


Up to 50 people are now allowed at indoor gatherings, with the exception of meetings of elected and appointed GRIC officials and GRIC commercial entities. Exceptions for funerals must be approved by the Executive Office and must follow COVID-19 protection protocols. 


A continued moratorium on housing evictions is still in place, but does not apply to evictions based on criminal activity. 


Individuals who test positive for COVID-19 or have been advised to quarantine and do not are subject to a written quarantine directive by THD and court-ordered quarantine by Community court, enforceable by Gila River Police Department. 


“If the current trend continues, I expect to be able to ease even more of the restrictions in the coming days and weeks,” said Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis in a video address to the Community posted on GRIC’s official Facebook page on March 11.


Schools in the Community may reopen, but are required to submit a reopening plan to the Education Standing Committee for approval. 


The plan must provide that students, teachers and staff attending classes in-person are vaccinated for COVID-19 and provide a negative COVID-19 conducted within five days prior to attending school. They must continue to be tested for COVID-19 while providing virtual learning for non-vaccinated students or those who wish to continue virtual learning. 


Gila Crossing Community School, Blackwater Community School, Casa Blanca Community School and the Maricopa Village Christian School were approved by the Education Standing Committee to begin in-person classes March 21. 


“We are pleased and excited that Community schools are committed to maintaining a safe and healthy learning environment for our children and are reopening for in-person learning,” said Gov. Lewis.