Native American Communities Struggle to Deal With Increasing COVID-19 Cases

Photo: Navajo Nation

Tribes all over the country are observing “Stay at Home” orders as the number of cases increases in Native American communities.  But the resources they have are woefully inadequate, with a total of only 71 ventilators and 33 ICU beds at the 24 hospitals the Indian Health Service (IHS) operates across the country, according to the Wall Street Journal.  As of Saturday, 26 residents of the Navajo Nation had tested positive for the virus and many more people were awaiting results.

Why This Matters:  As infectious disease expert Dr. Celine Gounder told ODP on Friday, “the more rural these communities and the more they’ve been able to hang on to their language and culture, the healthier they tend to be. But with a disease as infectious as the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, it’s only a matter of time before these communities are affected.” This virus is sparing no one and can easily overwhelm small, rural hospitals with little redundancy or backup. The assistance these Tribal communities need should not be denied – not while corporations get big handouts.  Ironically, the IHS had a stockpile of 1.2 million masks that had expired (can masks expire?) — they are now shipping them to hospitals around the country that are running short.

Simply Not Enough to Go Around

Tribal leaders in smaller communities began to worry last weekend when they learned that a $40 million grant from the CDC for tribal pandemic response excluded some of the poorest tribes in Nebraska and the Dakotas — communities that already struggle to provide adequate care.  Dr. Gounder also warned that Tribal communities might be more susceptible as well as vulnerable due to lack of resources.  She said, “The Indian Health Service has excellent leadership when it comes to infectious diseases, … but the IHS is also hampered by underfunding. The IHS spends about half per capita what Medicaid does.  In addition, many diseases common among indigenous peoples — such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, liver and kidney disease, and autoimmune disease — will put them at increased risk for severe disease and death if they are infected with SARS-CoV-2.”

The Wall Street Journal recounted the experience of one Navajo leader awaiting test results but showing symptoms who told the paper he climbed to the top of a sandstone rock formation and wept as he prayed in Navajo, “Mountains, I know you can hear me. Water, I know you can hear me. Holy people, I know you can hear me. I know you will not abandon us.”

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