The Navajo Nation is taking significant steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on the largest reservation in the United States. Photo: Navajo Nation Office of President and Vice President

'Lives are at risk': Coronavirus cases continue to grow in Indian Country as tribes push for action in Washington

Note: Following publication of this story on late Thursday evening, the Navajo Nation reported that the number of Navajo citizens who have tested positive for the coronavirus has grown to 14.

With the number of coronavirus cases in Indian Country growing by the day, tribes are pressing the federal government to live up to its treaty and trust responsibilities and ensure their communities aren't left out of relief efforts.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Indian Health Service was aware of 14 positive COVID-19 cases within the federally-run system. The number is significantly higher than the four that were known just a day prior.

The positive and presumptive positive cases are spread across five IHS service areas, up from the three areas that were known on Wednesday. That means the coronavirus has impacted nearly half of Indian Country.

The Navajo Area, which serves the Navajo Nation, appears to have been hit the hardest. So far, the IHS there has seen three COVID-19 cases, with all of them coming from the same community of Chilchinbeto, located on the Arizona portion of the reservation, which is the largest in the United States.

Chilchinbeto is small -- only about 500 people lived there in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Though the local chapter house offers some health services, the three COVID-19 patients reported with symptoms to the Kayenta Health Center, which is about 24 miles away.

The Kayenta Health Center, an Indian Health Service facility in Kayenta, Arizona, has been at the center of the COVID-19 outbreak on the Navajo Nation. Photo: IHS

From there, the patients -- a 46-year-old woman, a 40-year-old male and a 62-year-old male -- were taken to facilities in Phoenix, off the reservation. That's where further testing has occurred, according to tribal and federal officials.

As of Wednesday evening, the Navajo Area had facilitated testing of more than 100 people for the coronavirus, according to Dr. Loretta Christensen, who serves as the chief medical officer for the region. Of those, she said about 20 percent of the results had come back, with the three positive cases known as of that day.

"We are hopeful to get a lot more results in today," Christensen said at a press conference in Window Rock, Arizona, the capital of the Navajo Nation, early Wednesday evening. Neither the IHS, nor the tribe, has provided information to the public about additional cases.

Navajo Nation Office of President and Vice President: Press Conference - March 18, 2020

Altogether, the IHS had facilitated testing for more than 330 people, according to a tribal official who was made familiar with the data on Thursday afternoon. Of those, 14 returned positive and 89 returned negative, meaning results are still in progress on the remainder of the cases.

IHS officials, however, have warned that the number of positive cases will surely rise in the coming days and weeks as the coronavirus upends daily life in Indian Country. As of Thursday afternoon, more than 50 tribes have declared emergencies, more than 40 have imposed travel restrictions and dozens have attempted to close their borders to outsiders and non-residents in hopes of slowing the spread of the potentially dangerous disease.

With economic and social engines grounding to a halt, tribes are pushing the federal government -- as their trustee -- to live up to its obligations. So far, the U.S. Congress has responded by enacting two pieces of legislation to address the coronavirus pandemic.

But tribes remain uncertain about the $40 million authorized by H.R.6074, the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act. The new law directs the funds to be provided to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has not yet informed Indian Country of how soon the money will be distributed and in what form, whether it be grants, or other methods.

The second legislative package offers a bit more certainty. H.R.6201, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, puts $64 million into the IHS budget to cover the costs of COVID-19 testing. The new law also contains provisions to cover the costs of COVID-19 testing when it takes place under purchased/referred care, which happens when patients -- like the ones in the Navajo Area -- are taken to partner facilities outside of the federal system. It further provides $10 million for programs that provide nutrition assistance to elderly Native Americans.

With a third package in the works, tribes and key members of Congress are working to ensure Indian Country isn't left out. The overarching goal is to alleviate the huge financial pain being seen as a result of the closures of Indian gaming establishments across the nation.

“We cannot ignore the elevated risks faced by Indian Country from this virus,“ National Congress of American Indians Chief Executive Officer Kevin Allis, a citizen of the Forest County Potawatomi Community, said on Wednesday. “The federal government’s chronic underfunding of its treaty and trust responsibilities to American Indians and Alaska Natives must end – lives are at risk.”

The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives moved quickly on the first two packages. The U.S. Senate, which is in Republican hands, is in charge of the so-called "Phase 3" vehicle.

“We need to act urgently to ensure that Indian Country does not bear the worst costs of COVID-19," Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a statement on Thursday. "Historically, Native communities are among the most at risk during public health and economic crises."

“Tribes have been very clear that they need further health, community service, and economic recovery resources. Congress must put the needs of Native communities front and center. Our legislative response must close the unacceptable funding gaps and lift the institutional barriers facing Indian Tribes," added Udall, who is retiring at the end of the current legislative session. "And, to uphold our trust and treaty responsibilities to tribes and respond to the unique circumstances in Indian Country, our next response package must include a tribal-specific title and inclusion of tribal eligibility for all appropriate federal resources."

“As vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, I will continue to push Congress and the Trump administration to make sure Indian Country has access to federal coronavirus resources and that there is meaningful engagement with Native communities and tribal leaders in our response to COVID-19,” Udall concluded.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act)

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), the Senate Majority Leader, introduced the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, on Thursday. Though negotiations are ongoing, the 247-page package notably does not mention tribes, American Indians or Alaska Natives at this point.

“We need to take further steps to continue addressing our nation’s healthcare needs," McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor. “And we need to help protect American workers, families, and small businesses from this unique economic crisis that threatens to worsen with every day. We need to have the American people’s backs."

“This legislation is a significant next step," McConnell said of the CARES Act, a key portion of which would be directed to most American taxpayers in the form of "recovery checks" of up to $1,200 a person. “And the Senate is not going anywhere until we take action.”

Despite the exclusion of a specific Indian Country title in the Republican-drafted bill, lawmakers do not expect the CARES Act to be the final word on coronavirus relief efforts. Additional appropriations measures are expected in order to help the U.S. address the crisis, which has grown to more than 10,400 positive COVID-19 cases and 150 deaths as of Thursday at noon, according to the CDC.

The IHS has not reported any deaths within its system. However, government officials are aware of at least 2 deaths among the American Indian and Alaska Native population.

The Cherokee Phoenix confirmed the passing of a Cherokee Nation citizen on Thursday. Merle Dry was 55 years old when he contracted the coronavirus. He passed away on March 17 in Oklahoma, making him the state's first COVID-19 death.

"Merle Dry was in good health as far as we all knew," a March 18 social media post from his church in Tulsa read. "He was fighting a cold and then he contacted the corona virus. He was diagnosed on Tuesday and passed away on Wednesday. He was unable to breathe. He was age 55 and Cherokee."

The identity of the 2nd Native person who has died from the coronavirus has not been confirmed.

Though the IHS this week has provided data to the media and to tribal leaders about the number of COVID-19 positive tests, the agency notes that the figures do not include potential cases from facilities that are run directly by tribes through self-determination contracts or self-governance compacts.

It is with great sadness that I have to announce our dear Bro Merle Dry made his journey from earth to glory at 8:01pm....

Posted by METRO PENTECOSTAL on Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The flurry of activity came as Indian Country's representation in Congress took a hit. Two of the four tribal citizens in the House are now in self-quarantine as the coronavirus appears in their ranks.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, was the first to announce his new status on Thursday. He took steps to isolate himself after being in “extended contact” with Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Florida), who was the first member of Congress to report testing positive for COVID-19.

“During this time, I remain fully engaged in the U.S. response to this coronavirus, and operations in my offices continue," said Cole, who participated in a COVID-19 tribal listening session on Tuesday and a town hall with constituents on Wednesday before announcing his self-quarantine.

Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas), a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation, was the second. She too placed herself in self-quarantine after being in “contact with a fellow member of Congress who recently tested positive for COVID-19.”

“In the meantime, I will be teleworking from home and continuing to serve the people of Kansas’ Third District as we respond to this public health crisis," Davids said on Thursday. "I remain committed to working with our public health officials at all levels of government to keep our community prepared and safe."

Cole did not say whether he plans to submit to coronavirus testing though he said he was not exhibiting any symptoms. Davids, who is one of the first two Native women in Congress, said she was advised by a physician that she was at "very low risk for contracting COVID-19."

Navajo Nation #Coronavirus Map

The number of coronavirus cases on the Navajo Nation continues to grow by the day. The embedded map helps visualize the reach of the disease on the reservation, which is the largest in the United States.

According to Navajo leaders, the COVID-19 patients reported to or were transported to, or were treated at three particular Indian Health Service facilities on the reservation. Three pins on the map show the locations of these three IHS facilities:

Kayenta Health Center in Kayenta, Arizona
Chinle Health Care Facility in Chinle, Arizona
Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock, New Mexico

Additionally, a pin on the map represents Chilchinbeto, a small community in Arizona where a significant number of #Coronavirus cases have been connected. These patients reported with symptoms to the Kayenta Health Center, about 24 miles away.

The information is based on data that was released by Navajo and IHS officials as of late March 19, 2020.

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