'So much bigger than COVID': Lumbee Tribe combats virus in county with 3rd highest percent positive tests in NC

ROBESON COUNTY, N.C. (WTVD) -- As the percentage of positive coronavirus tests slowly climbs across North Carolina, Robeson County is reporting more than double the statewide average.

While the state reported 6.9% percent of electronically submitted COVID-19 tests coming back positive on Thursday, Robeson County reported 14.9% -- the third highest number in the state. Robeson County assistant health director Melissa Packer said cases originated in work places and long-term care facilities in the county but the spread of COVID-19 remains rampant in the community.

"You really can't point your finger at where or where not you might have been exposed because it is so widespread now," Packer said.

To slow the spread, health officials have been hosting free community testing events, specifically targeting their messaging to encourage members of the Black and Native American communities, which make up a large percentage of the state's population, to participate.

"Robeson County is very diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, culture and so when we look at our data, we can see that a larger portion of people who are being tested in our county are Native Americans or African American," Packer said. "I think the testing that we are doing shows we are reaching out to the historically marginalized population."

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But members of the Lumbee Tribe said testing isn't the only way to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the area.

"This is so much bigger than just COVID, we've got so many different things going on in an already impoverished community," said Tammy Maynor, the director of Governmental Affairs for the Lumbee Tribe.

Maynor said the Lumbee Tribe, which is located largely in Robeson County, is still recovering from two major hurricanes while dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.

"There is fear," Maynor said. "There's a fear of the test itself."

Maynor said rather than asking elders in the Lumbee community and other members to drive into cities, she and other leaders held their own testing events to instill a sense of comfort in the process. Maynor also said Lumbee families also have to rethink their weekly routines in a community where gathering together is an important part of the culture.

"We are a group of people that love to come together with family," Maynor said. "On Sunday, typically you would have gone to church and had lunch with your mom and dad, so you have families gathering together and that's a hard habit to break, so understanding that we can't gather like that inside of a house."

Patrick Strickland, the Lumbee Tribe program manager, said at least 4,500 Lumbee community members across several counties have been tested for COVID-19, adding that alongside testing, leaders are partnering with community programs to address food insecurity, unemployment, school supplies and housing insecurity. Those community groups are also present at testing sites to provide resources, which Strickland said is a draw for the community.

"To recover from COVID, it's not just testing, we have mortgage assistance, utility assistance, water security, things like that are also on the back-end of COVID testing," Strickland said.

Both Maynor and Strickland stressed the importance of state and federal funds both from the CARES Act and the upcoming Census to provide resources not just to combat COVID-19, but to help with food and housing insecurity, unemployment and other community issues.

"We are not stopping, we are going to continue going out to the communities," Maynor said.

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Strickland said the Lumbee Tribe will rise to face these new challenges, just as they have many times before.

"It's a new day, we're facing it as we see it," Strickland said.

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