Near herculean efforts by tribal government to contain the spread of COVID-19 weren’t enough to save Michael Gavin, a 39-year-old member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, who died Aug. 7, some 17 months after the Tribes initially declared a state of emergency. Gavin was the second CTUIR member to die of COVID-19. His uncle was the first.

Michael was a son, a brother, and an uncle to the Gavin family, which included his mother, Shawna, a member of the CTUIR Health Commission, and his sister, Jill-Marie Gavin-Harvey, one of nine members of the Tribes’ board of trustees, the policy-making panel for the confederacy of the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla peoples.

Gavin was an evangelical Christian and youth pastor at a Pentecostal church, and he followed the Washat “seven-drum” Longhouse religion. He also was a former gang member who, even after he left that lifestyle, counseled other gang members from around the world.

He was not vaccinated, despite the urging of his family and his Tribe. He died at Providence St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla two weeks after his admittance to the ICU.

Now, Shawna wants people to know her son would likely be alive today if he had taken advantage of the readily available vaccine. “We encouraged him. I wish he had been vaccinated. That’s my message.”

Aggressive measures to block the virus

On March 2, 2020, the Oregon Health Authority announced Umatilla County’s first case of the novel coronavirus. The CTUIR leadership was surprised, but took quick action, establishing an Incident Command Team that put together a plan of action.

The infected individual worked at Wildhorse Resort & Casino, which prompted closure to sanitize the gaming and hotel property. At that point in the pandemic, health officials had concerns about the virus being spread on surfaces. Soon after, tribal government, Nixya’awii Community School, Head Start, and daycare, and the senior center closed for cleaning as well.

The following day, the CTUIR’s Incident Command Team enacted an emergency operations center, and by mid-March, the Tribes’ board of trustees had passed a public health quarantine law. The Umatilla Tribes were well ahead of most other local governments in responding to an unprecedented public health challenge.

Nearly 900 employees at Nixya’awii Governance Center, the government headquarters on the Umatilla Reservation, were encouraged to work from home, with staggered work schedules and social-distancing requirements implemented for those who remained onsite. The Treaty Bison Hunt, the CTUIR’s treaty-reserved right to harvest buffalo in Montana, was canceled. Wildhorse Resort & Casino closed the gambling floor and limited all food service to takeout. Kayak Public Transit, the CTUIR bus service provided throughout Eastern Oregon, shut down its daily service.

Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center began providing only essential services, and the ICT issued a temporary ban on housing evictions. By April 2020, Wildhorse had closed its hotel, cineplex, and two main cafes. CTUIR even issued a temporary ban on all forms of traditional sweat, a saunalike health and cultural practice.

As the number of positive cases dropped, restrictions were lessened. Wildhorse was given clearance to reopen its facilities, while Yellowhawk resumed routine medical, behavioral health, and dental appointments. The Yellowhawk alcohol and drug prevention program conducted a community smudge — the practice of spiritually cleansing areas with the smoke of smoldering sage — and hand-drum songs throughout the Nixya’awii community. Kayak Public Transit resumed limited operations.

In December, the Tribes’ department of natural resources loaned to Yellowhawk an ultra-low temperature freezer designed to hold lamprey that the health center could instead use to refrigerate COVID-19 vaccines. Starting Dec. 3, Yellowhawk began mass vaccinations, first offering vaccines to tribal members and all tribal employees, and eventually extending eligibility to everyone over 16 living within the Tribes’ ceded territory, which encompasses 6.4 million acres and includes parts of nine Oregon counties and five in Washington.

Vaccinations continued throughout the spring. In early April, tribal government employees were allowed back in their offices, and Wildhorse Resort & Casino, which had furloughed 70 employees, called employees back to work.

Then, on May 12, 2021, a press release announced an “alarming surge” in COVID-19 on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. After six weeks of reporting zero cases among tribal members and Yellowhawk-eligible patients, the CTUIR recorded five cases in a week, followed by nine cases in a single day. The board of trustees approved a vaccination incentive — first prize of $50,000 — for tribal members and employees.

As of Aug. 21, Yellowhawk had conducted 3,716 tests with 361 positive cases for a 9.7% rate of infection.

A fateful decision

Despite the growing concern about the new delta variant and the striking increase in cases, Michael Gavin chose not to be vaccinated.

According to Michael’s family, his decision not to receive the vaccine was a personal choice, not a political one.

Family members said it was Michael’s trust in God, combined with skepticism as to whether the vaccine was safe, that prompted the fateful decision to decline the shot.

On July 19, Michael Gavin started feeling sick.

The next day, Jill-Marie Gavin-Harvey suggested that the adults in the house get tested at Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center, even though everyone but Michael had been vaccinated.

Michael Gavin with sister Jill-Marie Gavin-Harvey, who tried to convince him to get the COVID vaccine. Photo courtesy of the Gavin family/

Michael tested positive, as did his mother and uncle, Michael Ray Johnson, on July 20. The vaccine lessened the symptoms for Johnson, who was asymptomatic, and even though Shawna had a fever and body aches, her symptoms went away after a day or two.

Not so for Michael. His cough intensified, and doctors told the family his health was worsening.

Shawna drove Michael to the hospital in Walla Walla, about 25 minutes away from their house. That drive was the last time she would see her son alive.

“We found out the next day he hadn’t been forthright with us about how sick he was,” Jill-Marie said. “We didn’t know he’d been admitted directly to ICU and we couldn’t go in.”

As his hospital stay stretched into the second week, Michael “became more honest,” Jill-Marie said.

“He said, ‘I can’t breathe.’ He told me, ‘Don’t call me because it’s hard to talk,’” Shawna said.

The doctor’s report was grim and preparations were made to fly Michael to Providence Hospital in Portland.

Michael’s heart stopped as he was being transferred from a hospital gurney to a helicopter gurney. Medics worked for 45 minutes trying to bring him back.

“When the doctor called, he said we needed to know there was no hope,” Shawna said. “I told him Michael didn’t want to be intubated. We were going to have to let him go.”

On Aug. 10, hand drummers and singers, with dramatic heart-pounding songs, led an interdenominational service in the afternoon, followed that evening by Washat songs — “three sevens.” A final seven songs were sung the next morning before Michael was buried at Homly Cemetery near Cayuse on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, his grave on the south-facing hill overlooking the Umatilla River. “It was where he would want to be,” according to Michael’s family.

Shawna believes Michael would still be with them if he’d received the COVID-19 vaccine.

“He never thought (the virus) wasn’t real, but he was leery of the vaccine. If things weren’t black and white Michael usually wasn’t interested,” she said.

Jill-Marie said, “Part of me wishes I’d pushed him harder but realistically there was no pushing Mikey. If he didn’t want to do it, he was not going to do it. I don’t believe he ever regretted not getting the vaccine.”

Jill-Marie said it’s been a “terrible year” for leaders on the Umatilla Reservation.

“Especially as an elected official. Decisions were hard. … No one saw this coming. We didn’t know exactly the right path to take. It was difficult. I wanted to protect my people and couldn’t protect my own brother.

“There was a lot of turmoil, but people need to know this is not over. We can’t be letting our guards down. … There is no sure-fire way to protect us from COVID-19, but we do have some tools. I hope people will think seriously about protecting their loved ones. This is the worst pain I’ve ever felt.”

Display photo: Michael Gavin, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, died of COVID on August 7. Photo courtesy of the Gavin family/

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ContributorWil Phinney has been a reporter and editor for more than 40 years at newspapers in Oregon, Wyoming and Montana. He recently retired after 24 years as editor of the Confederated Umatilla Journal,...