Tribes Outperform Federal Government in COVID-19 Response

Tribes began taking steps early on to protect their members, even before the federal and state governments began requiring such measures


Several days ago, Rodney Bordeaux, president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, sent a strongly worded SOS to the directors of the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization about COVID-19, saying, “We have approximately 30,000 tribal members living in south central South Dakota with access to fewer than 200 beds within our reservation.”

Not only were beds woefully inadequate to the needs of potential COVID-19 victims, but tests to find out who might need the beds also were lacking. “We believe that some kits have been sent to the states,” Bordeaux wrote, “but it is the states that have been determining who gets a test and who does not.”

In Michigan, Aaron Payment, chair of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, told the Native America Calling radio show , “We’re the largest tribe east of the Mississippi, and we have two test kits.”

The “chronically underfunded” Indian Health Service (IHS) was underprepared for handling virus response, Melissa Riley, PhD, executive director of Indigenous Women Rising, charged in a March 24 opinion piece in Rewire News . “If IHS can barely keep up with broken bones and preventive care,” she wrote, “what makes our people across the country think IHS can handle the outbreak of COVID-19?”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not break down data on cases according to race or ethnicity, but according to the IHS website, 42 people in the agency’s jurisdiction had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Mar. 24. Of those, 29 were in Navajo Country. By the evening of that day, according to Native News Online , the number of Navajos testing positive had risen to 49. Given the often-invisible spread of the virus, many more are likely to be infected.

The IHS website directs visitors to visit CDC pages for more information. However, these pages do not provide information “in a culturally literate and responsive manner,” Riley says, that explain ways to stay indoors, nor do they offer contacts for indigenous people—despite the fact, she adds, that on the West Coast they were among the first to contract the virus and to reach out with questions.

For its part, the IHS has said it “continues to work closely with our tribal partners to coordinate a comprehensive public health response to COVID-19,” holding weekly conference calls with tribal and urban Indian health organization leaders to “provide updates, answer questions, and hear concerns.” It also is in constant contact with the White House and the CDC, IHS says. IHS facilities “generally” have access to testing for individuals who may have COVID-19, the website says: However, “there are nationwide shortages of materials that may temporarily affect the availability of COVID-19 testing at a particular location.” Tribes, the website recommends, should first follow their usual process for ordering supplies. If they can’t access supplies, they should contact their IHS Area Office, which can access supplies through the IH National Supply Service Center.

Bordeaux, Payment, and Riley are not alone in their criticisms and concerns. Native Americans and Alaska Natives were hit disproportionately during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic: The death rate was 4 times higher than in all other racial and ethnic groups combined. The NIH says AI/ANs are particularly vulnerable to epidemic infections, due to poverty, underlying chronic illnesses (including asthma), and delayed access to care.

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