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'At this rate, the entire tribe will be extinct': Zuni Pueblo sees COVID-19 cases double as first death is confirmed

Citizens and leaders of the Pueblo of Zuni are increasingly sounding alarms as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise dramatically in their community in New Mexico.

In a social media update on Tuesday, Governor Val Panteah confirmed 14 positive cases. That's double the number from the prior results he released.

And in a separate notice on the same day, Panteah confirmed the first coronavirus related death of a tribal citizen.

"Our hearts go out to the family and everyone who is impacted by the tragic loss of a tribal member," Panteah said in a news release.

Posted by Pueblo of Zuni on Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Panteah on April 3 instituted a curfew on the reservation. But in his post on social media, the governor sounded upset about the lack of compliance.

"One death. I don’t know how else to put it but all of you need to stay home! I would ask you, is travel really necessary? Every time you leave your home, you are taking a risk against your health maybe even death!" Panteah said.

Responses to the post have been just as severe.

"At this rate, the entire tribe will be extinct," one person said.

Reminder that a curfew has been implemented until further notice from the Pueblo of Zuni Governor.

Posted by Pueblo of Zuni on Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Residents have cited some major concerns that appear to be contributing to the spread of the coronavirus. Despite ordering restrictions, Panteah previously said his directives do not apply to religious activities and ceremonies on the pueblo.

"Zunis need to understand that even though everyone at the night dance homes were blessed you can't just rely on religion alone!" one person said.

In response, Panteah said he was going to have people who have been participating in ceremonies tested.

"With the religious activities, we are talking with the state to do mobile testing," the governor said.

Notice: Starting 04/08/2020 we will be limiting the number of customers in our store to 20% of total capacity. We're...

Posted by Halona Marketplace on Tuesday, April 7, 2020

A second concern is connected to the lack of social distancing at Halona Marketplace, a grocery store that has continued to serve the community during the pandemic. Amid complaints, the business said it start limiting patron access on Wednesday.

"We're confident that we'll be able to serve you well but we need your help," a post on social media read. "Please help us enforce social distancing by doing your part."

Tribal citizens aren't the only ones concerned about the spread of the coronavirus in Pueblo communities. Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) on Wednesday said Indian Country has been "hit particularly hard" by COVID-19.

"We are getting distressing updates about outbreaks at San Felipe Pueblo and Zia Pueblo," Udall, the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, told reporters during a conference call.

As of Tuesday, San Felipe has 52 COVID-19 cases while Zia has 31, representing more than 3 percent of its population. The situation at Zia is so dire that the two top officials of the reservation -- the governor and the lieutenant governor -- are among those with the disease, several people familiar with the tribe told Indianz.Com.

"We can't get federal resources to tribes soon enough," said Udall.

But where the federal government has not stepped in, the state of New Mexico is taking action. Gov. Michellle Lujan Griaham (D), who previously served in the U.S. Congress, is implementing widespread testing at Pueblos -- the same kind Panteah referenced -- through the state Department of Health.

"The @NMDOH has conducted extensive testing in both pueblos and is working with tribal officials to contain the spread of #COVID19 in these communities and provide care to those who have tested positive," Lujan Griaham said on social media on Wednesday as the results from San Felipe and Zia sent shockwaves through the state.

The Pueblo of Zuni is located in McKinley County, where an outbreak has emerged in Gallup, the largest city in the region. According to the state, 55 cases have been reported in the county, along with two deaths, as of Tuesday.

Though the state has not broken out numbers by race, the data indicates that the overwhelming number of cases are of Native Americans. As of Tuesday, the Navajo Nation reported 32 of its citizens in McKinley County have tested positive.

“COVID-19 cases and deaths are growing at a very alarming rate on the Navajo Nation," President Jonathan Nez said on Monday.

When the numbers from Zuni are taken into account, that would mean nearly 84 percent of the cases in McKinley County are citizens of the two tribes.

The 57 hr curfew will apply to all residents in the Ramah Navajo boundary and surrounding communities (Candykitchen,...

Posted by Ramah Navajo Chapter House on Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Many people from Zuni travel to Gallup often to shop and to engage in educational, health, social and other activities. The same is true for citizens of the Navajo Nation, both on the main reservation and at the Ramah Chapter.

The Ramah Chapter, also located in McKinley County, is separated from the main reservation. Despite its remote nature, 10 people have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday.

And just like Zuni, complying with curfews and social distancing guidelines has been an issue.

"We are seeing groups of people driving back from town or from the store. Please stop traveling in groups," the chapter said in a post on social media on Tuesday.

Ramah Navajo Chapter: COVID 19 Outbreak in Ramah Navajo PHHC

The situation is further complicated by the close distance between Zuni and Ramah -- they are only about 20 miles apart. As the outbreaks in the communities were emerging, Zuni officials last month confirmed that people from Ramah were continuing to visit the Indian Health Service center at the pueblo, in addition to utilizing a clinic in their chapter. People from both places have been patients at the Gallup Indian Medical Center in Gallup.

Both Zuni and Ramah fall within the Albuquerque Area of the IHS, where COVID-19 cases have exploded. The number of positive cases in the region increased by 152 percent in just one day over the weekend.

"The Governor can only do and say so much. Its up to the people to listen and comply," one person from Zuni said on social media.

Leaders of the Navajo Nation have repeatedly implored their citizens to abide by stay at home orders and social distancing guidelines. But it hasn't been enough so the reservation this weekend will be on a 57-hour curfew.

"The Navajo Nation can implement and enforce curfews and restrictions, but ultimately it’s up to you. We must practice T’áá hwó’ ajít’éego, self-determination, our Diné people must know that they also have the power to prevent the spread of COVID-19," President Nez said on Tuesday. " We have the power to save lives, especially those that have compromised immune systems. We must work together to protect our people, our way of life and who we are as Diné.”

Note: Thumbnail photo of welcome sign at Pueblo of Zuni by Ken Lund

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