Great Plains Epidemiology Center: a look at tribal health and those working to improve it

NewsCenter1's Darsha Nelson shows us the work behind-the-scenes at the Great Plains Epidemiology Center

RAPID CITY, S.D. — Tinka Duran has been with the Great Plains Tribal Leader’s Health Board for 14 years, and was recently named the senior director of the Great Plains Epidemiology Center. Duran, member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, holds her degree in Social Science from Oglala Lakota College and a master’s in public health from the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

She says the knowledge and partnerships made through those years with Great Plains have set her up well for the challenge.

“I’ve met a lot of mentors and role models through my career here and have really just moved into this position,” Duran says.

Screenshot 2022 02 09 111318The Epidemiology Center was founded in 2003 and is one of just twelve partner tribal epidemiology centers founded by the Indian Health Service’s Division of Epidemiology and Disease Prevention.

“The Great Plains Tribal Epidemiology Center, GPTEC for short, is really focused on working on public health infrastructure and outcomes for our tribal nations in the Great Plains, that’s 18 tribal communities,” Duran adds. “We’re trying to assist them with addressing their public health needs and what those needs are and how we can help address those [and] provide technical assistance.”

But what exactly is epidemiology?

“Epidemiology is the study of the factors that impact the health of communities and populations,” says Nicholas Hill, the data unit director and lead epidemiologist at GPTEC. “So that would be things like everything from the fast-moving stuff like COVID-19 to how to examine the use of car seats and babies and infants and everything in-between.”

They’re like doctors for the population as a whole, instead of one individual at a time.

“We have to work on increasing people’s awareness and knowledge; addressing their beliefs and attitudes, and trying to impact action that can improve their health” Hill adds.

Hill says serving 18 communities across four states comes with its challenges, and so has the coronavirus pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly challenging because our idea is, we need to bring information because people need care…but one of the challenges is misinformation, and misinformation is really the enemy of that care,” Hill says. “We can’t do our job when others are trying to divide the truth into falsehoods and partial truths just based on rumor…based on trolling. This confuses people and they’re not able to take the right actions that they need to protect themselves.”

While coronavirus has been a major recent focus, Great Plains also provides public health programming on a variety of important topics.

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photo courtesy: GPTLHB

Take Opal Jones for example. Jones, a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe, says she has lived in Rapid City for the majority of her life and currently serves as the program manager for sexually-transmitted infections and teenage pregnancy prevention program with Great Plains Epidemiology.

“I currently work with middle school-aged kids, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, and I work with the tribes in the Great Plains area in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa,” Jones says. “We teach medically-accurate curriculums with the STI prevention and the teenage pregnancy prevention.”

Before the pandemic, Jones says their outreach was based in the schools, utilizing after-school programs, but they’ve had to switch to doing their work online. They’ve recently been re-funded and are getting their classes going again.

“So we currently just got re-funded and we are open to all the tribes now, not just the four that we used to previously work [with]; we’re open to all of them and we’re doing more online classes because a lot of our tribes have went virtual…so we were able to reach a lot more students that way,” Jones says.

And with much of their programming being grant-dependent, they’re always looking to the future.

“Right now we’re really trying to focus on how far have we come as a tribal epidemiology center in our capacity growing. We’ve added a lot of staff, which has built out areas in evaluation in our technical assistance and training and all these different areas, but we’re kind of trying to measure and look towards where can we go from here?” says Leah Belgarde, the program manager for public health infrastructure with GPTEC. “Where can we continue to build and improve so that we could better serve our tribal communities, and what are some untapped areas where we haven’t helped the tribes yet and support their public health efforts?”

Belgarde, from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, runs her program with funding from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) grant. She says as they get ready to reapply for the grant, they’re focusing in on what the next iteration will look like.

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photo courtesy: GPTLHB

“We’re really just trying to assess, you know, are we fulfilling all of our duties as a tribal epidemiology center and fulfilling all the core functions of public health? I think we are doing a great job with a lot of different areas, but research is an area that we haven’t quite touched so far, but I think we can,” Belgarde says. “I’d like to focus on continuing our efforts for training because I think that’s a huge part of public health capacity.”

And recently, GPTEC has introduced programming to help monitor the efficacy of their outreach.

“In the future, it is part of our long-term sustainability and the sustainability of tribal programs to introduce evaluation efforts through this organization so we can help them keep programs moving and keep those benefits rolling in the communities,” says Sean Jackson, who manages the recently-added evaluation unit at GPTEC.

For more information about the Great Plains Tribal Epidemiology Center, CLICK HERE.

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