Dr. Lance Frye, former interim commissioner of the Oklahoma State Department of Health, speaking during a news conference in Oklahoma City. Dr. Frye was recently appointed Muscogee Nation's Surgeon General. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

The former commissioner of health for the state of Oklahoma has been named the first surgeon general for the Muscogee Nation. 

Dr. Lance Frye, who is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, led Oklahoma’s response to the pandemic before resigning last October.

“I took on the role as the commissioner of health and stepped, really, right in the middle of the largest public health emergency in any of our lifetimes, and certainly in recent history,” he said during an interview with the Daily Yonder. “And it became very evident very quickly, I guess, that there has been a very large lack of investment in public health infrastructure for the past several decades.” 

When it comes to Covid-19, he said there’s no question that Indian Country has been disproportionately affected. 

“I certainly don’t want to diminish the impact of that in any way,” he said. “However, I will say Oklahoma, I feel like we had outstanding coordination with our Covid response throughout the state.”

He noted that tribal nations opened up their testing and vaccination sites to both Native citizens and non-Natives alike. 

The pandemic has brought about a new focus on telehealth, but in some places in Oklahoma, broadband access is still a challenge. He noted that Oklahoma lacked some infrastructure, which became apparent during the start of the pandemic. 

“For instance, we had very old technology, as far as the ability to provide real-time information on data — it was really just not there,” he said. “We did not have the testing infrastructure within the state.”

When the state doesn’t have the capability to offer lab tests, that’s an issue, he said, especially when you’re in competition “with every other state and every other person in the world who’s looking for those limited resources. … We realized that we had to build our own infrastructure within our state in order to move things forward.”

As surgeon general for the Muscogee Nation, Frye will focus on public health issues such as obesity, tobacco cessation, mental health, substance use disorders, nutrition, and a number of other initiatives, said Shawn Terry, secretary of health for the Muscogee Nation, in a press statement. 

Frye is the first surgeon general for the Muscogee Nation – the fourth-largest federally recognized tribe in the country – and is believed to be the first surgeon general for any tribal nation in the U.S.

“I think that … I won’t be the only one for long,” he said. “I think that there will be many more to follow, but it just shows the importance of healthcare and the well-being of the people. They were forward enough to do something that’s never been done before in order to really concentrate on improving health and I am just proud to be part of it.”

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