SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Native Americans make up 12% of South Dakota’s COVID-19 cases despite being only 8.8% of the population. As cases once again surge in the wake of the Omicron variant, the pandemic continues to take a toll both physically and mentally on the Indigenous population in the state.

The Native American population in South Dakota is the second most impacted race/ethnic demographic behind the white population which is responsible for 76.4% of COVID-19 cases.

According to the South Dakota Department of Health (SDDOH), Native Americans have made up 17.5% of total hospitalizations, 14.5% of deaths, and 11.1% of active cases of coronavirus.

“COVID is disproportionately affecting American Indians and Alaska Natives due to the several comorbidities that many Natives have,” Samantha Chapman told KELOLAND News. There is also a lack of access to health care for those living in more rural populations of South Dakota.

Samantha Chapman is the Communications Director for South Dakota Urban Indian Health (SDUIH) in Sioux Falls. SDUIH primarily serves the urban population of Native Americans and Chapman says they are still seeing a big increase in visits to their Sioux Falls and Pierre clinics.

On top of seeing increased visitors to the clinic, Chapman says they are also dealing with being short-staffed as many employees, or their families, are home sick.

“We’re booked all day every day basically… That’s coupled with the struggle of staff also dealing with this virus,” Chapman said.

The clinics are not only seeing an increase in visits for physical health needs, but for mental health needs as well. Chapman says that in addition to medical needs, SDUIH attends to cultural, spiritual and behavioral needs in their clinics as well.

When KELOLAND News spoke to SDUIH in October, counselor Josh Reinfeld said they had seen their behavioral health visits triple from 2020 to 2021. The increased demand for mental health care pushed SDUIH to add a fourth counselor to their team in December according to CEO and Executive Director of SDUIH, Michaela Seiber.

“We are seeing a lot of patients who are dealing with anxiety and a lot of grief right now through this COVID pandemic,” Chapman said.

For the Native Americans in South Dakota, the loss of elders in the community could have a lasting impact culturally, Chapman adds.

“We are losing a lot of the stories that are passed down. A lot of native history is an oral history and so if we don’t have our history keepers, you know our elders to tell those stories then we lose all of that.”

In order to protect that history, and the community at large, SDUIH is focusing on keeping the community supplied with tools to curb the spread of COVID-19. In Sioux Falls, the clinic is giving away two boxes of at-home tests, four tests total, for free. The clinic is also a distribution site for the free tests that will be provided by the South Dakota Department of Health.

SDUIH has also been hosting mobile pop-up vaccine clinics in the community as well as offering vaccines in their clinics.

When the COVID-19 vaccine was first introduced to the public, adult American Indians led as the most vaccinated demographic at 45.5% vaccinated. But their numbers have slowed since then, especially compared to other races and ethnic groups. Across the United States, 52.6% of American Indians, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians 18 and older are fully vaccinated according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Currently, Asian Americans lead as the most vaccinated demographic with 95% fully vaccinated, trailed by Hispanic Americans (80.9%), Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders (77%), white Americans (77.5%) and Black Americans (77.3%).

The Mayo Clinic reports that as of January 16, 63% of all eligible Americans (ages 5 and up) have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

According to data from the DOH, the unvaccinated are making up most of the COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in South Dakota.

Chapman wants to encourage all South Dakotans to make “smart decisions” to help curb the spread of COVID-19 in the community.

“We need the community to help us out. We need you to wear your mask, we need you to make sure you’re fully vaccinated and boosted, if possible,” Chapman said.