With an Abbot testing machine at his side, President Donald Trump signs a Proclamation on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives Awareness Day in Phoenix, Arizona, on May 5, 2020. Photo: Shealah Craighead / White House

Trump administration's coronavirus efforts in Indian Country plagued by lack of accurate data

The Trump administration's coronavirus testing efforts in Indian Country are being dealt a serious setback with warnings about the accuracy of the machine provided to tribal communities across the nation.

During a media call on Thursday afternoon, the Indian Health Service touted the 250 Abbott machines that are being used to return rapid COVID-19 results, some as quickly as within five minutes. One official described it as a "White House effort" that has provided more than 90,000 testing supplies to tribal communities, some of which have been hit hard during the pandemic.

"IHS continues to focus on getting supplies to hot spots," Chief Medical Officer Michael Toedt said on the call.

Just a few hours later, another federal agency raised significant doubts about the Abbott machines, one of which was delivered last week by President Donald Trump himself to a leader from the Navajo Nation, a coronavirus hot spot. Citing emerging data, the Food and Drug Administration said the test "may return false negative results," meaning it does not always detect when a person has contracted COVID-19.

“We are still evaluating the information about inaccurate results and are in direct communications with Abbott about this important issue," said Tim Stenzel, a director within the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, which like the IHS, is part of the larger Department of Health and Human Services.

Indianz.Com Audio: Indian Health Service Media Call - May 14, 2020

Tribal leaders began raising concerns about the accuracy of the Abbott tests last month, when the IHS began distributing the machines after the Trump administration faced criticism for moving too slowly to respond to the crisis. During weekly calls organized by the White House, they pointed to early studies which they said could raise false hopes in Indian Country.

One tribal leader said the Abbott test returned 25 percent false negatives in the community, according to participants. Another had read reports warning of inaccurate results and voiced concerns during a call in April.

Despite the doubts, Trump administration officials did not respond to the inquiries in substantive ways, participants said. But the false negatives haven't been the only complaint to emerge about the Abbott machines.

The Navajo Nation waited weeks for the machines to arrive in mid-April, President Jonathan Nez said. When they finally showed up, he said tribal and IHS facilities on the largest reservation in the U.S. had to waste precious supplies just to get them working properly.

Navajo Nation: Town Hall - April 21, 2020

"It takes many of these tests just to calibrate one," Nez said during a town hall on April 21.

Additionally, he said the Abbot machine relies on proprietary testing supplies that can only be obtained from the company. At the time, the kits were on back order.

"If we get through all these test kits, we're going to be out, we're going to be waiting again," Nez said.

"We'll see how long that will last," Nez added.

Other providers have run into similar issues with the Abbot machines. The Oyate Health Center, a tribally-managed facility in Rapid City, the second most populous area in South Dakota, has only been given access to 24 test kits per week, Chief Executive Officer Jerilyn Church said on a Congressional town hall on April 17.

House Committee on Natural Resources: Coronavirus Response in Indian Country

The lack of adequate supplies has real consequences. The Oyate Health Center tested 46 people last week alone, exhausting a significant portion of its allocation.

"It is widely known that American Indians and Alaska Natives are at higher risk for serious illness or death if infected with the COVID-19 virus," Church, who also serves as CEO of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board, the entity that oversees the Oyate Health Center, said on Monday. Of the 46 tests, 12 returned positive, Church said.

Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board: Oyate Health Center Update - May 11, 2020

Abbott Laboratories is a publicly traded company based in Illinois. The firm was granted an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the FDA for the "ID NOW" COVID-19 test on March 27.

On Wednesday, the company disputed the results of a widely-publicized New York University study which raises doubts about the accuracy of the ID NOW test. A short statement said it was "not consistent with other studies" which showed high rates of accuracy.

A longer update was provided on Thursday. The company said the machine was being used improperly by some researchers.

"We're seeing studies being conducted to understand the role of ID NOW in ways that it was not designed to be used," the company said.

"While we understand no test is perfect, test outcomes depend on a number of factors including patient selection, specimen type, collection, handling, storage, transport and conformity to the way the test was designed to be run," the statement continued. "ID NOW is intended to be used near the patient with a direct swab test method."

According to the FDA's release on Thursday, the agency has received "15 adverse event reports about the Abbott ID NOW device that suggest some users are receiving inaccurate negative results." The data still must be verified but the warning was sent out "in the spirit of transparency."

As of May 13, 68,717 coronavirus tests have been conducted within the IHS system. Of those, 6,436 have returned positive for COVID-19, according to the results. That represents an increase of nearly 7.3 percent from the 5,999 cases previously reported.

"We are testing very heavily," noted Loretta Christensen, the Chief Medical Officer for the Navajo Area of the IHS, the region that has seen the most COVID-19 cases in Indian Country..

Overall, testing increased by 9.9 percent between May 12 and May 13, the data shows. It grew by 5 percent between May 11 and May 12.

The data, however, is incomplete, the IHS notes on its website. While 100 percent of facilities directly run by the agency are reporting coronavirus testing results, the same cannot be said for other providers within the system.

Only about 33 percent of tribally managed facilities and 44 percent of urban Indian organizations are disclosing testing data, the IHS told Indianz.Com after the media call on Thursday.

"All of the tribes and urban Indian organizations are continuing to increase their reporting, and as this pandemic goes on, there's been certainly a strong willingness in participation from all of those entities," Toedt said on the call.

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Alexander Mallory: Tribes have full legal authority to use checkpoints to safeguard health (May 13, 2020)
Ronson Chee: COVID-19 pandemic exposes long-standing issues on Navajo Nation (May 13, 2020)
Sean McCabe: How should Native Nations spend COVID-19 funds? (May 13, 2020)
'It’s really scary for us': Oglala Sioux Tribe orders lockdown after COVID-19 hits reservation (May 12, 2020)
'We waited for weeks': Tribal governments in line for additional coronavirus relief (May 12, 2020)
Clara Caufield: Montana to begin phased 're-opening' amid #COVID19 pandemic (May 12, 2020)
'I'm protecting my people': Tribal citizens defend coronavirus checkpoints amid threat from state (May 11, 2020)
Supreme Court takes up sovereignty case amid coronavirus crisis in Indian Country (May 11, 2020)
Marcella LeBeau: Vulnerable Native Americans need protection from COVID-19 (May 11, 2020)
Tim Giago: Overcoming the ignorance of South Dakota's governors (May 11, 2020)
Trump's transparency? Coronavirus relief formula subject of intense discussion in Indian Country (May 8, 2020)
Native American communities hit hard by COVID-19 (May 8, 2020)
Coronavirus relief funds finally going out to Indian Country after long wait (May 7, 2020)
Donovan White: Respect Native people, Native nations, and Indian sovereignty (May 7, 2020)
'A slap in the face for Indian Country': Tribes decry Trump administration's delay in $8 billion in coronavirus relief (May 6, 2020)
President of Oglala Sioux Tribe faces legal crisis amid coronavirus pandemic (May 6, 2020)
Cronkite News: Tribal pageant winner ships homemade masks across Indian Country (May 6, 2020)
Trump heads to Native American roundtable amid heat on $8 billion in #Coronavirus relief (May 5, 2020)
'We are a forgotten people': Native candidate struggles to be heard amid #COVID19 pandemic (May 4, 2020)
President of Oglala Sioux Tribe admits arrest during #Coronavirus crisis (May 4, 2020)
Chuck Hoskin: Even during social distancing, Cherokee culture connects us (May 4, 2020)
Native Sun News Today Editorial: 'Katy Bar the Door!' (May 4, 2020)
'We need to do more for our tribes': $8 billion in coronavirus relief missing in action (April 30, 2020)
'He got demoted': Trump administration moves Indian Country official out of White House (April 29, 2020)
(April 28, 2020)
Social Distance Powwow founders apologize for 'Smoke Signals' broadcast with unexpected guest (April 27, 2020)
Tim Giago: Will things ever be the same? (April 27, 2020)
Chuck Hoskin: Helping Cherokee small businesses survive (April 27, 2020)
Donovan White: Standing up for Native Americans and Native American jobs (April 27, 2020)
Robert Starbard: Fear and Hope - The view From Hoonah, Alaska (April 27, 2020)
Tribes sue Trump administration after being excluded from #Coronavirus relief program (April 27, 2020)
Cronkite News: Basketball star Michelle Tom helps her people fight #Coronavirus (April 27, 2020)
Montana Free Press: Court blocks Keystone XL Pipeline water crossings (April 27, 2020)
'Finally': Tribal gaming in line for coronavirus relief amid stiff competition for resources (April 24, 2020)
Indian Country set for historic showdown in fight for $8 billion in COVID-19 relief (April 23, 2020)
Oregon tribes' primary engines – casinos – stalled by COVID-19 (April 23, 2020)
Indian Country awaits decision on $8 billion in coronavirus relief money (April 21, 2020)
NABI cancellation means much more to Native American community than just loss of basketball (April 21, 2020)
'Broken promises': Tribes decry leak of private data from $8 billion coronavirus relief fund (April 20, 2020)
Alaska Native corporations outpace tribes in race for $8 billion in coronavirus relief (April 17, 2020)
'A robbery happening in broad daylight': Indian Country in revolt over $8 billion coronavirus fund (April 16, 2020)
Family holds onto hope while mother fights for her life after being diagnosed with COVID-19 (April 16, 2020)
Coronavirus takes higher toll on Native Americans in hard hit region (April 15, 2020)
Alaska Native corporations in line for billions in coronavirus relief promised to tribes (April 14, 2020)
'We keep getting left out': Tribal gaming remains locked out of $349 billion coronavirus relief program (April 14, 2020)
Native Sun News Today Editorial: Publishing during a time of a pandemic (April 14, 2020)
Tribes rush to respond to new coronavirus emergency created by Trump administration (April 13, 2020)
Arne Vainio: Zoongide'iwin is the Ojibwe word for courage (April 13, 2020)
Rep. Tom Cole: Oklahomans will overcome the #Coronavirus (April 13, 2020)
Cronkite News: Businesses running out of time with #Coronavirus relief program (April 13, 2020)
VIDEO: Interview with Jonathan Nez of Navajo Nation and Chuck Hoskin Jr. of Cherokee Nation (April 9, 2020)
COVID-19 and American Racism: A Mohawk Perspective (April 9, 2020)
'At this rate, the entire tribe will be extinct': Zuni Pueblo sees COVID-19 cases double as first death is confirmed (April 8, 2020)
Rapid coronavirus tests finally coming to Indian Country as cases continue to rise (April 7, 2020)
Arne Vainio: 'A great sickness has been visited upon us as human beings' (April 7, 2020)
Montana Free Press: Governor OKs Keystone XL construction despite #Coronavirus threat (April 7, 2020)
Cronkite News: Tribal response to 2020 Census lags far behind rest of nation amid #COVID19 (April 6, 2020)
Cronkite News: 'Overwhelming' demand on first day of $349 billion #Coronavirus program (April 6, 2020)
'We need clarification now': Indian gaming industry being shut out of coronavirus relief program (April 3, 2020)
Cronkite News: Trump administration finally closes Grand Canyon after weeks of #COVID19 complaints (April 2, 2020)
'We need the money right now': Tribes await billions of dollars in coronavirus relief (April 1, 2020)
Chuck Hoskin: In times of need, the Cherokee Nation does not stand down (April 1, 2020)
Rep. Tom Cole: More #Coronavirus help is coming to Indian Country (April 1, 2020)
Rep. Markwayne Mullin: The CARES Act brings #Coronavirus relief for tribes (April 1, 2020)
Cronkite News: Lawmakers join Navajo Nation in seeking closure of Grand Canyon due to #Coronavirus (April 1, 2020)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention faulted for delay in Indian Country coronavirus funds (March 31, 2020)
Cronkite News: As COVID-19 cases rise, so do hospital worries about equipment (March 31, 2020)
'We're building faith': Social Distance Powwow brings Indian Country together despite coronavirus (March 30, 2020)
Supreme Court churns along with Indian Country case amid coronavirus crisis (March 30, 2020)
Tim Giago: World War II and coronavirus pandemic have similarities (March 30, 2020)
Cronkite News: $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill includes $10 billion for Indian Country (March 30, 2020)
Montana Free Press: Glacier National Park closes over coronavirus concerns (March 30, 2020)
Shane Morigeau: We should do more to protect Montanans (March 27, 2020)
'We were asking for a lot more': Lawmakers fought hard for Indian Country coronavirus relief funds (March 26, 2020)
Coronavirus relief coming to Indian Country with passage of bipartisan legislation (March 26, 2020)
Tribes face great need and don't have enough resources to respond to the coronavirus pandemic (March 26, 2020)
Rep. Tom Cole: Fighting an invisible enemy in the #Coronavirus (March 25, 2020)
Rep. Markwayne Mullin: Resources for those impacted by #COVID19 (March 25, 2020)
Indian Health Service works to distribute more coronavirus funding to tribes as cases continue to grow (March 24, 2020)
Kevin Abourezk: Indian Country can't be left behind in coronavirus crisis (March 24, 2020)
Cronkite News: Republicans and Democrats feud over #coronavirus stimulus (March 24, 2020)
Urban Indian couple helps community amid coronavirus crisis (March 23, 2020)
Trump administration moves slowly on coronavirus funding for Indian Country (March 23, 2020)
PHOTOS: Lakota man helps fight the coronavirus (March 22, 2020
Montana Free Press: Neighboring counties ask Yellowstone National Park to close (March 23, 2020)
Chuck Hoskin: Safety and health are priority for Cherokee Nation (March 20, 2020)
'Lives are at risk': Coronavirus cases continue to grow in Indian Country as tribes push for action in Washington (March 19, 2020)
COVID-19 in Indian Country: Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) goes into self-quarantine (March 19, 2020)
COVID-19 in Indian Country: Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) goes into self-quarantine (March 19, 2020)
Doug George-Kanentiio: How the Mohawks responded to historical plagues (March 19, 2020)
Rep. Tom Cole: Flatten the #Coronavirus curve (March 19, 2020)
Rep. Markwayne Mullin: Do your part to flatten the #COVID19 curve (March 19, 2020)
Cronkite News: COVID-19 relief bill clears Congress as lawmakers prepare new package (March 19, 2020)
David Korten: Why coronavirus is humanity's wakeup call (March 19, 2020)
Indian Country plunges into uncertainty as coronavirus reaches their communities (March 18, 2020)
'The fight is here and now': Sacred site debate returns to nation's capital amid familiar challenges (March 12, 2020)
'We are staying on top of it': Oglala Sioux Tribe declares coronavirus emergency (March 11, 2020)
Tribes test Trump administration's commitment with coronavirus crisis (March 9, 2020)
United South and Eastern Tribes cancel D.C. meeting over coronavirus concerns (March 9, 2020)
Indian Country Today: Some say go while others say no after COVID-19 disruption (March 6, 2020)
NIGA keeps close watch on coronavirus ahead of annual convention (March 6, 2020)
Indian Health Service nominee in limbo amid another high-profile crisis (March 5, 2020)
Umatilla Tribes reopen casino after addressing coronavirus (March 5, 2020)
Indian Country Today: Warnings for tribes as coronavirus spreads (March 3, 2020)
Umatilla Tribes shut down casino and takes precautions as coronavirus hits Indian Country (March 2, 2020)
Rep. Tom Cole: Ready to combat coronavirus (February 19, 2020)
Indian Country Today: Risk from virus called 'very low' by health officials (January 29, 2020)