Indianz.Com Video: Boosting pay for #Coronavirus frontline workers in Indian Country

Rapid coronavirus tests finally coming to Indian Country as cases continue to rise

Rapid testing for the coronavirus will finally be arriving in Indian Country, days after the Trump administration first said the Indian Health Service was going to be given priority as COVID-19 cases continue to rise at astronomical rates in tribal communities.

In response to repeated inquiries from Indianz.Com, the IHS on Tuesday morning said it expects to receive the promised systems on Wednesday. The equipment will then be distributed to health care facilities starting on Thursday, with the first rapid tests ready to go by Friday, according to the agency.

"This test allows for medical diagnostic testing at the time and place of patient care, provides COVID-19 results in under 13 minutes and expands the capacity for coronavirus testing for individuals exhibiting symptoms as well as for healthcare professionals and the first responder community," the IHS said in the statement.

"The Indian Health Service headquarters is working closely with IHS area offices to distribute testing equipment and supplies where they will have the most impact," the agency added.

Certain areas of Indian Country have indeed been hit hard by the coronavirus. The Navajo Nation continues to see the largest number of COVID-19 cases, with 384 confirmed positive results and 15 deaths attributed to the disease as of Monday evening.

“COVID-19 cases and deaths are growing at a very alarming rate on the Navajo Nation," President Jonathan Nez said in announcing the latest results and announcing a reservation-wide "mandatory" curfew this coming weekend.

“We’re in this fight together, but we have to be united if we want to beat the virus sooner than later," said Vice President Myron Lizer. "The longer the public chooses not to comply with staying home, the longer we’re going to be in this situation and the more risk that is posed to everyone."

The Albuquerque Area of the IHS, which serves more than 20 tribes in four states, is also emerging as a hotspot. The number of positive cases in the region increased by 152 percent in just one day over the last weekend, according to data provided by the agency. One small tribe in New Mexico warned that nearly 3 percent of its citizenry has already been infected by COVID-19.

“If this statement does not make you realize how real and close to home this truly is, then we don’t know what will,” Acting Governor Floyd Toribio of the Pueblo of Zia said over the weekend, imploring people in a community of 700 people to comply with a stay at home order.

Despite the high rates, testing for the coronavirus in the Albuquerque Area has not kept up. Over one day this past weekend, for example, the number of tests administered in the region grew by just 4 percent, according to the IHS data. Only on Monday did the testing rates finally show significant gains.

The coronavirus testing data also shows great disparities in Indian Country. The Great Plains Area, for instance, serves more than 130,000 Native Americans in four states. Most of the facilities in the region are run directly by the IHS.

Yet only 166 tests have been administered in the region as of April 5, according to the federal agency. On the day prior, only 159 people had been tested, reflecting a scarcity of supplies among people whose treaties promised them health care. President Julian Bear Runner of the Oglala Sioux Tribe has said the local IHS hospital only has 32 kits on one of the largest reservations in the U.S.

With ordinary tribal citizens going to great lengths to find out whether they are COVID-19 positive, the rapid test systems are supposed to alleviate the situation. But the Trump administration has not been clear on where in Indian Country and, more importantly, when Indian Country will benefit.

On April 2, Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, was the first to announce that the IHS was going to receive rapid test kits. However, she did not offer any details about the effort.

But Birx did note that areas where significant testing has occurred has allowed these communities to take measures to contain the coronavirus. She indicated that wasn't necessarily the case in Indian Country.

The Trump administration, according to Brix, will be "prioritizing this new rapid test kit to those areas that may not have the same amount of access -- to the Indian Health Service, and to the public health institutions, and the public health and state labs so that they can use that and start forward leaning into surveillance."

Three days later, President Donald Trump himself touted the rapid testing effort. During a briefing at the White House on April 5, he said a private company is producing them for "public health labs ... as well as the Indian Health Service."

But even then there was conflicting information. During his turn at the podium, Vice President Mike Pence pointed out that some communities are already using the rapid coronavirus test.

"They all got the 15-minute test," Pence said of a non-tribal community back in his home state of Indiana.

Later in the briefing, when a reporter asked directly about the rapid tests, Trump demurred to Pence. "The 15 minute test has really been a breakthrough," the vice president said.

Yet Pence also said the tests promised to the IHS had not yet been distributed.

"We’re distributing them to all 50 states and the Indian health care system," Pence said during the briefing. "And then we’ll be distributing the tests. Dr. Birx, is there anything to add further on that?"

"That’s perfect, sir," said Birx.

Pressed even further, a different official stepped to the podium. Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, the vice director of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the tests had not in fact been distributed because they were still sitting on a "shelf" somewhere.

"I believe they’re on the shelf at Abbott, a good majority of them," Polowczyk said, naming the company that Trump earlier said was producing the tests.

Finally, Trump jumped back in, appearing to want to prevent anyone from thinking that the tests weren't going out.

"Tuesday, they go out," Trump responded, indicating that he already knew an answer to the question about rapid testing. "They go out on Tuesday."

Interview with Stacy Bohlen and Aaron Payment

Thank you for joining us for a very special live interview with Stacy Bohlen, executive director of the National Indian Health Board, and Dr. Aaron Payment, first vice president of the National Congress of American Indians. Kevin Abourezk is our host tonight.Another special guest will be joining us tonight, a young tribal leader who was recently diagnosed with COVID-19 but is feeling well enough tonight to join us and share her story.

Posted by Indianz.Com on Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Indianz.Com Video: Live with Stacy Bohlen, Aaron Payment and Myra Pickering

During an Indianz.Com broadcast last week, one tribal leader said she was repeatedly denied testing, both by the IHS and other providers, even though she was exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, such as high fever, persistent cough and shortness of breath. it took two weeks for Myra Pickering to get a test, during which time she was diagnosed with double pneumonia. Her positive result was finally confirmed by the IHS on March 24.

"It was horrible," Pickering said of her suffering with COVID-19. "I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat."

Pickering, who serves on the council for the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, is now in recovery. She's been sharing her story widely in order to show Indian Country how the coronavirus can impact anyone, from children to elders and other loved ones.

"I don't want anybody to get this," Pickering said on the Indianz.Com broadcast on April 2. "This virus doesn't discriminate."

"I thought I was fine and then, boom, it just changed," Pickering added.

Indian Times with Kevin and Leo

Thank you for joining us for Indian Times with Kevin and Leo! Tonight's show features a very special guest, a Navajo man who recently survived COVID-19.

Posted by Indianz.Com on Sunday, April 5, 2020
Indian Times Podcast with Kevin and Leo: Live with Alastair Bitsoi

But even though Pickering is on the mend, she has been told that she might not get tested again to ensure she has been cleared of the coronavirus. Her husband -- who has been in quarantine in the family's home throughout the ordeal -- hasn't been tested either.

"They're very strict," she said in reference to what health providers have told her about coronavirus testing.

"As for trying to get tested, just really keep asking, just pressure them," Pickering said. "Try your hardest to get tested."

Urban Indians have encountered the same hurdles. During a live broadcast of the Indian Times podcast on Sunday evening, Alastair Bitsoi, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, said he was repeatedly denied a coronavirus test even though he was exhibiting symptoms and had recently returned from New York City -- a hotspot for COVID-19.

"I even pleaded in the emergency room ... to test me," Bitsoi said of his coronavirus testing efforts, not just in New Mexico but also in Utah.

"I kept trying to argue with them, and kept advocating for myself because I need care," said Bitsoi, who works for Utah Diné Bikéyah, a group that advocates for increased protections on ancestral and sacred tribal lands in Utah.

Like Pickering, it took Bitsoi about two weeks to finally get a test in Salt Lake City in Utah, where he currently resides. But by the time he got his positive result, he was starting to improve with the help of Navajo traditional medicine and conventional treatments. On Saturday, April 4, he declared himself a "COVID-19 Survivor" on social media.

"Maybe I'm not White, maybe I'm not Mormon, maybe that's why I didn't get tested in the first place," Bitsoi said of the homogenous state of Utah. He said New Mexico health authorities have been more helpful, particularly with following up on his current condition.

Bitsoi wants to return home to the Navajo Nation to help out with coronavirus efforts on the largest reservation in the U.S. But due to lack of testing, he currently has no way of knowing whether he could be responsible for spreading the disease he once carried.

"I just want to go home and help my people and be there and support them," Bitsoi said on the broadcast.

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