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HHS hires new doctors, warns on monkeypox

Dr. Vandhana Kiswani-Barley is the executive director of the tribe’s Health and Human Services (HHS) department. (Photo Damon Scott)

HOLLYWOOD — The Seminole Tribe’s Health and Human Services (HHS) department has recently made two key hires to its staff.

Dr. Belleitha Lambkin-Alexander is a pediatrician who was hired to primarily serve the Hollywood and Big Cypress reservations; and Dr. Mary-Joy Monsalud is a family medicine physician who was hired to primarily serve the Brighton Reservation.

Dr. Vandhana Kiswani-Barley, the head of HHS, made the announcement in a tribalwide memo May 24. She said the hires are significant as the Brighton community, while having two nurse practitioners, hasn’t had a dedicated physician for about two years. In addition, for the Hollywood and Big Cypress communities, the need for a pediatrician has been on the rise.

Kiswani-Barley said tribal members can schedule appointments with the new doctors by contacting their tribal health clinics.

Meanwhile, HHS has issued a warning about the monkeypox virus, which has recently surfaced in the U.S. Kiswani-Barley said May 26 that two suspected cases had emerged recently in Broward County.

“We should treat it like any other virus,” she said. “It’s important and wise to maintain the use of a mask, even though it’s optional.”

Kiswani-Barley said the contagious virus can be contracted through respiratory droplets that are inhaled, similar to the Covid-19 virus. She said HHS is trying to source a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved vaccine to have on hand at the tribe in case it is needed. She added that the current risk is considered low and that it’s too soon to predict whether it will become widely transmitted in the U.S.

Kiswani-Barley said monkeypox symptoms usually begin with a fever and can include a headache, muscle aches and exhaustion. Chills and backache may also be present. After a fever, a rash develops within one to three days (sometimes longer), often beginning in the face and spreading to other parts of the body. Lymph nodes in the neck, armpits or groin may also swell.

“The key is for individuals to know their own body and get help immediately if they have any symptoms,” she said. “Get checked to be safe and get ahead of the game.”

Kiswani-Barley said if individuals think they’ve been exposed, they should isolate themselves and call their tribal health clinic.

Covid-19 uptick

In addition, the tribe has recently seen a slight uptick in positive Covid-19 cases. Kiswani-Barley said the positivity rate had been consistently at less than 5%, which is considered under control, but is now hovering around 10%.

“The data show this will likely continue until about mid-June and may continue after, but there should be a steady decline after that,” she said.

However, Kiswani-Barley warned that summer vacations and national holidays like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July usually coincide with a spike in cases.

“The main message is you can still live with some level of normalcy, but if you do have signs and symptoms, don’t expose your family for the short-term gratification of a holiday,” she said.

On the horizon

Kiswani-Barley said the proposed expansion of the Betty Mae Jumper Medical Center on the Hollywood Reservation is still in progress. HHS is waiting for its grant request to be finalized before the design is completed and work can begin.

A two-story medical center annex would be located north of the main facility and would house offices and an imaging center for services like basic X-rays and ultrasounds.

Kiswani-Barley said if all goes as planned, the new annex could open in 2024 or 2025.

HHS is also in the midst of creating a new home health aide department. The tribe currently contracts with several outside agencies to provide tribalwide home health aide services, but would rather provide those services in house.

Kiswani-Barley is hopeful the new department could be in place by the end of 2023.

“It will end up being a huge cost savings for the tribe and a lift in the quality of care,” she said.

Also on tap are two new Elder Services buildings for the Hollywood and Big Cypress communities. Elder Services falls under the HHS umbrella.

“The conversations have started and we are finalizing designs to meet the needs of the community,” Kiswani-Barley said.

For more information about monkeypox, Covid-19 or other health concerns, tribal members can call the HHS hotline at (833) 786-3458.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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