Yakima County and the Yakama Nation’s efforts to combat the coronavirus and get people vaccinated are an example to the nation, the country’s second gentleman said.
“I look at this program that is serving a community that has not been served before, and honoring equity,” said Douglas Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris Tuesday, during a visit to the Yakima Valley. “This is really an example for equity, a model for serving underserved communities, from the minute they drive up to the minute they leave, it is a good experience.”
Emhoff visited the Yakima Nation and the mass vaccination site at the Yakima Valley SunDome on behalf of the Biden administration to promote vaccination. During his visit, Emhoff also said the administration is making $68 million available for local efforts to promote vaccination.
Gov. Jay Inslee discussed efforts to reduce barriers to getting vaccinated, particularly in the state’s Latino communities, such as mobile vaccination at fruit growers and packing plants, allowing people to make vaccination appointments through the state’s 211 phone system and launching media campaigns encouraging people to get the shot.
U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Sammamish and a pediatrician, stressed the importance of building trust to overcome vaccine hesitancy, particularly in communities where people may fear being detained by immigration officials if they come out.
“This is a safe place,” Schrier said in both English and Spanish. “You don’t need your documents or papers here.”
Emhoff said he’s met too many people who have told him they didn’t believe the pandemic was real until a friend or family member died from the virus.
He said the masks and the vaccine are working to reduce the coronavirus’ spread, as backed up by clinical trials and actual deployment of the vaccine.
“We have to keep wearing the masks and following the science,” Emhoff said.
Emhoff’s visit began at Legends Casino Hotel near Toppenish, where the Yakama Nation’s Tribal Council was conducting a socially distanced meeting in the resort’s event center. Emhoff was welcomed by the singing of a traditional honor song that also served as a prayer. He was later presented with a pair of blankets emblazoned with the tribe’s seal.
Tribal Chairman Delano Saluskin described the toll the virus has taken on the Nation, both in terms of lives lost — 49 — as well as the cultural losses, such as funeral rites that had to be foregone because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“This hurt a lot of people because they were not able to see their loved ones off,” Saluskin said.
He said the tribe has also experienced economic losses, as Legends only generated 40% of its annual revenue last year, and a tribal lumber mill was not able to fully operate due to the pandemic.
Emhoff said the administration is sensitive to the sacrifices being made in Native American communities to stem the tide of the pandemic, which has hit tribal citizens particularly hard. Emhoff said his visit Tuesday was the second time he had gone to Indian Country in his role as second gentleman, and he said it has left him humbled.
“I am struck by how you have put your traditions on hold for public health,” Emhoff said. “It is a good example.”
The American Recovery Act has $31 billion in assistance earmarked for Native communities, and the American Jobs Plan could also provide additional relief through efforts to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.
Athena Sanchey-Yallup, the council’s secretary, said the Nation is also experiencing another crisis, that of missing and murdered indigenous women, dating back to the 1960s.
Emhoff said Vice President Harris has been dealing with the issue of violence against women since she was a prosecuting attorney in California, and that President Biden was one of the sponsors of the Violence Against Women Act. And he said the MMIW issue is also important to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to head the department that also oversees the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Emhoff also toured the Yakama Nation Cultural Center, where he was given an overview of Yakama history and traditions, and visited the vaccination site on the campus.
Recent efforts by Yakima County officials to clarify recommendations for social distancing at school might have further complicated the issue.
While there have been a series of discussions around the new guidance at the county level, the decision of whether to reduce distancing between students to 3 feet remains in the hands of school districts.
“Ultimately, it’s up to the school district,” said Ryan Ibach, chief operating officer for the health district.
Late last month, the state reduced the COVID-19 social distancing requirements for K-12 classrooms in Washington from 6 feet to 3 feet, following recent changes in federal guidelines.
According to the new guidance, teachers and staff should maintain 6 feet of distance from students and each other, with the 3 feet applying to distance between students. Students should also maintain 6 feet of distance when eating, doing activities such as PE and music, or when in hallways and gymnasiums. Middle and high school students who aren’t in isolated “cohort” groups should still be placed at 6 feet apart in places where the number of people infected is still above 200 per 100,000 population over a two week period, or where the test positivity rate is above 10%.
Days later, the Yakima Health District echoed the guidance in a communication to Yakima County superintendents. The Yakima County Board of Health then “discussed a need for additional clarity,” according to a news release from the health district.
The board’s agreed upon motion recommended that county schools “start making plans to return to school full time using current Department of Health guidelines and using cohort models when metrics require to accomplish this when we don’t meet case rates or test positivity rates.”
Yakima County had 209 cases per 100,000 people from March 13-26. The local positivity rate was 10.6% from March 12-18.
County Commissioner Amanda McKinney, who introduced the Board of Health motion, said the board’s recommendation “specifically removes the metric requirements.”
“The goal is to give a clear green light to those districts who want to move forward with plans that reduce the social distance to 3 feet, irrespective of the metrics,” she said by email. “Without expressly removing the metrics, we likely would have seen little to no change by the end of this school year within those Districts who knew they had safe plans forward to welcome children back into the classroom full-time.”
McKinney pointed to public schools that began the school year remotely due to high transmission rates and guidance from the state, even while private schools in Yakima County returned to in person, as an example of the need for “express recommendation.” Local private schools reintroduced students counter to formal public health guidance but with planning help from the Yakima Health District, while public schools waited for the green light from the health district to return grades of students to campus. Yakima County districts later served as a model for safe in-person learning for other schools in the state.
Ibach said instead of clarifying the distancing guidance, the board of health’s recommendation further complicated it.
“I think it added confusion,” he said.
He said the board’s recommendation was no different than previous recommendations from the district and state: when the transmission thresholds are not met, cohorting is recommended for middle and high schools reducing spacing to 3 feet between students.
Since Yakima County is above the metric thresholds, middle schools and high schools are recommended to follow cohorting to reduce space, said Ibach. He said Selah, Zillah and Sunnyside school districts planned to maintain cohorting among middle school students and reduce distancing between students, following this guideline. But among high school students who often cycle through several classes in a single day, it “is more difficult to keep the kids together, because they have to switch classes.” He said the inability to cohort was what was stopping higher level grades from reducing distance, rather than the metrics.
Regardless of recommendations, the final call is up to school districts, Ibach said.
About two weeks after it was cut down by state highway workers, a memorial cross mounted in September for two California men who disappeared while driving through the Yakama Reservation in 2019 has been returned to the man who made it.
Rick Dominguez of Toppenish, who crafted the wooden cross for Jon Cleary, 47, and Josiah Michael “Jo” Hilderbrand, 25, got it back Tuesday, along with memorial candles and a small bell. The cross, candles and bell had been removed by Washington State Department of Transportation workers from a site near U.S. Highway 97 south of Toppenish.
A set of buck antlers also placed with the cross in a special ceremony on Sept. 3 3 weren’t returned, said his daughter, Chestina Salinas.
Dominguez is known as the Cross Man for all the memorial crosses he has made for grieving families on and off the reservation, and the family helps set them.
Hilderbrand and Cleary disappeared while driving through the Yakama Reservation on June 7, 2019. They were driving to a Dead & Company concert at the Gorge Amphitheatre. The car they were traveling in was discovered abandoned and partially burned the morning of June 8, 2019, in an orchard about 8½ miles west of Toppenish.
On Aug. 5, a road crew working on U.S. Highway 97 about 10 miles south of Toppenish found their remains in the area of milepost 52. Their deaths have been ruled homicides and the FBI is investigating.
Dominguez, his wife Sonya and others mounted and blessed the cross in a ceremony near the place where the men’s remains were found. Late last week, while digging roots, the couple and others stopped by the site to check on the cross. They saw that it had been sawed off and taken, along with the other items.
The area about 30 feet east of the highway appeared to have been swept clean of everything placed there in memory of the Cleary and Hilderbrand.
Meagan Lott, south central region communications manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation, confirmed Friday that highway workers removed the memorial cross a couple weeks ago. Though smaller roadside memorials stand closer to roads throughout Yakima County, private memorials are not allowed along state roadways due to safety concerns, she said.
But state highways on tribal lands are an exception. Washington has an easement to operate its highway through the reservation. The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakima Nation, one of 29 federally recognized tribes in the state, is a sovereign nation.
After people shared on social media that the cross had been removed, the brother of one of the women at the blessing ceremony saw it at the transportation department’s maintenance facility on Fort Road in Toppenish and told others. The Dominguezes learned it was there Friday.
WSDOT keeps roadside memorials it removes in case someone wants to claim them.
Relatives and friends of the two murdered men were upset with removal of the cross, as were those who made, set and blessed it. On Monday, WSDOT and Yakama Nation representatives met about the situation, Lott said.
“We listened to representatives from the Yakama Nation. We obviously admit that we were in the wrong,” Lott said. “There wasn’t really any major decisions that were made Monday. It was more of a coming together, what happened and how that was perceived.
“We’re still in those kind of discussions as far as how we should be proceeding as far as memorials go,” she added. “It’s just continuing our good working relationship with the Yakama Nation as we move forward and taking a look at what kind of things can be discussed as we move forward.”
Rick Dominguez and relatives and friends of the murdered men would like to remount the cross in another ceremony, possibly a little more to the east. State transportation officials want to come up with a solution that both parties are comfortable with, Lott said.
“As far as the memorial and where it’s going to be placed again, that’s something we are collaborating with the Yakama Nation on,” Lott said. “It is their land and we are going to be working with them closely to be sure we come up with a good solution.”