A scene from a feast day at Ohkay Owingeh in New Mexico. Photo: Larry Lamsa

'We must remain diligent and prepared': Coronavirus continues to take heavy toll on tribes

Coronavirus data from New Mexico continues to show a disproportionate impact on the first Americans, whose cultural, political and social contributions are a point of pride in a state with nearly two dozen tribes.

As of May 26, American Indians and Alaska Natives accounted for 57.6 percent of COVID-19 cases, according to the state Department of Health. That's the highest proportion of any racial or ethnic group.

The number is even more startling given that Native Americans account for just 9.6 percent of the overall population in the Land of Enchantment, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. No other racial or ethnic group is as over-represented as citizens of Apache, Navajo, Pueblo and other tribal nations.

TownHall Update COVID-19 5/26/2019

Posted by Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer on Tuesday, May 26, 2020
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer: Town Hall - May 26, 2020

"I know that people will say," President Jonathan Nez of the Navajo Nation said during a virtual town hall on Tuesday, "why do you keep telling us about the tests and the virus?"

"It's just going up and up," Nez noted of his tribal government's daily tallies of coronavirus test results.

"We're just trying to be transparent," Nez said as he and Vice President Myron Lizer celebrated their birthdays. "These are facts that you need be aware of."

"We are testing a lot more people," he added, referring to the fact that nearly 15 percent of the tribe's population has been tested in the last two months. "More than any other state and many other countries throughout the world."

The state of New Mexico does not publicly post data about tribal affiliation on its COVID-19 dashboard. But the health department recently provided a table to a news outlet which showed that citizens of the Navajo Nation accounted for the vast majority of positive cases.

When asked about the data, the department told Indianz.Com that the information was based on testing conducted both by the Indian Health Service and by the state. A spokesperson, however, did not say how the results were validated.

For example, the state didn't say whether individuals who reported being a citizen of a particular tribe were indeed enrolled. No differentiation was made between people who live in reservation or urban communities either.

"The information is collected via a combination of [IHS] and testing data from every test performed for members of the Pueblos, Tribes and Navajo Nation whose homeland happens to overlap with the New Mexico state lines," the state department told Indianz.Com.

But with the information being widely shared on social media, some tribes complained that the data was inaccurate and outright misleading. The Pueblo of Laguna, for example, pointed out a day after the report that none of the positive cases attributed to its citizens live on the reservation.

The distinction was drawn to reinforce stay-at-home directives, social distancing requirements, checkpoints and other restrictions in the community. In fact, the tribe in more recent days has taken stronger steps to keep people away from the reservation, promising to prosecute anyone who violates an April 8 order closing borders to non-residents.

The efforts so far appear to be working. The tribe still hasn't had a positive case on the reservation as of May 21, the last date for which an update was available.

Data for at least two other Pueblos was also inaccurate because it showed COVID-19 cases outside of their reservations, according to residents and officials from those communities. Neither tribe has yet to see a positive patient within their borders.

In light of the confusion, the department declined to provide tribal affiliation data to Indianz.Com and indicated it would not release such information in the future because doing so had "offended" tribal leaders. The information published by New Mexico In Depth on May 13 was shared by the agency without tribal permission.

And despite a steady increase in cases on the Navajo Nation, President Nez said stay-at-home orders, curfews, social distancing and other requirements are working on the largest reservation in the United States. The tribe released additional data on Wednesday which indicated that an anticipated "surge" in hospitalizations and admissions occurred between April 21 and April 26, a month earlier than had been projected.

"Really, that’s attributable to all the great actions of you all, the citizens as well as the leadership of the Navajo Nation,” Michael Weahkee, the newly-confirmed director of the Indian Health Service, said during the virtual town hall on Tuesday. He participated in person from Window Rock, the tribe's capital.

Weahkee, who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Zuni, a neighboring tribe in New Mexico, said the data showed that the Navajo Nation was flattening the so-called coronavirus curve, meaning that the health system wasn't being overtaxed. With the help of federal partners, a number of alternative care and isolation sites have been set up throughout the reservation to help prevent COVID-19 from spreading.

"These facilities are places of healing and we want to see our people leaving the isolation sites well and free of the virus,” said Vice President Lizer.

Other tribes aren't seeing as much progress. Though Zuni has a much smaller number of cases -- 90 among its citizens, including four deaths, as of May 19 -- some people in a community of about 7,600 don't appear to be following public health and safety orders.

“People that have tested positive or have been exposed to the virus are continuing to visit other people or allow people to come into their residences,” Governor Val Panteah said on social media on Sunday. He implored to those who have contracted COVID-19 that "self quarantine means to stay home!"

Three other Pueblo communities in New Mexico are also dealing with large case volumes. At San Felipe, more than 130 people have tested positive in a community of less than 2,200.

Since the pandemic began two months ago, more than a dozen at San Felipe have died, including a prominent spiritual leader and two former members of the tribal council, according to Pueblo citizens who have been keeping tallies. The tribe itself has not provided new data in more than a month.

At neighboring Kewa, also known as Santo Domingo Pueblo, the tribal health corporation reported 50 COVID-19 cases as of May 22, more than double the number from earlier in the month. As with Zuni, some appear to be flouting local orders -- the tribe late last week reported an incident of positive people "spitting" on car door handles, in an apparent attempt to spread the virus in a tight-knit community of about 2,400.

The Pueblo of Zia has been hit hard as well. In a community of less than 1,000 people, more than 100 have tested positive for COVID-19, according to state data.

But the disease is more than just data. Peter Pino, a well-known and well-respected former governor of Zia, passed away due to COVID-19 earlier this month, friends of the family said. His wife also had been hospitalized at the time of his death, according to these people.

Kewa, San Felipe and Zia are all located in Sandoval County, which has seen 546 positive cases as of May 26. With over 250 being among citizens of the three tribes, they account for 80 percent of the cases in a place where where Native Americans are only 12.5 percent of the population.

According to the state data, there have been 26 COVID-19 deaths in the county. The majority have been tribal citizens, according to people familiar with the communities, again a sign of the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus among Native Americans.

Even Pueblos that have so far remained coronavirus free are feeling negative impacts. For the first time in recorded history, Ohkay Owingeh in the northern part of New Mexico will not be holding two important cultural events in June.

“Please know that this was a difficult decision and a multitude of options were considered, however in the end the concern for the health and well-being of you and yours was the deciding factor,” a memo from the tribal administration read.

Hundreds of tribal citizens take part in dances held during the feasts, one on June 13 and the other on June 24. Thousands of relatives, friends and members of the public visit every year for the events, which are of significant historical interest as Ohkay was host to the first European colonial settlement in the present-day United States.

The Spanish government arrived in 1598, almost a decade before the more well-known Jamestown, which was an English colonial settlement. Ohkay also served as the first capital of New Mexico before it was moved to present-day Santa Fe, and it was the home of Po'Pay, who led the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and who now represents the state in the U.S. Capitol.

"Our way of life is being interrupted," said one Pueblo leader, who asked not to be named out of respect for the elders whose spiritual guidance is being followed. "This is who we are."

Since early March, when the first COVID-19 case was reported, the Navajo Nation has provided daily updates about coronavirus testing among Navajo citizens who live on the reservation. A large portion of the tribe's homelands fall in New Mexico.

The tribe, however, no longer provides a county-by-county breakdown of coronavirus cases. The most recent update with New Mexico-specific results was on May 14, which incidentally was a day after the state's tribal affiliation table was published in the media:

• McKinley County, NM: 928
• San Juan County, NM: 428
• Cibola County, NM: 37
• Sandoval County, NM: 26
• Socorro County, NM: 26
• Bernalillo County, NM: 3
Note: Data from May 14, 2020

According to the New Mexico Department of Heath, McKinley County -- which is home to the coronavirus hotspot of Gallup, a well-known reservation border town --  has seen 2,236 COVID-19 cases as of May 26. Native Americans represent 76.7 percent of the population in the county, U.S. Census figures show.

San Juan County, which is home to Farmington, another well-known border town, has 1,605 COVID-19 cases as of May 26. Native Americans represent 39.6 percent of the population in the county, according to the U.S. Census.

Starting on May 25, the Navajo Nation Department of Health began providing data based on service unit on the reservation. Three of the eight units cover the tribe's lands in New Mexico:

• Chinle Service Unit: 1,169 (Arizona)
• Crownpoint Service Unit: 503 (New Mexico)
• Ft. Defiance Service Unit: 236 (Arizona)
• Gallup Service Unit: 834 (New Mexico, parts of Arizona)
• Kayenta Service Unit: 746 (Arizona, parts of Utah)
• Shiprock Service Unit: 774 (New Mexico, parts of Utah)
• Tuba City Service Unit: 418 (Arizona)
• Winslow Service Unit: 83 (Arizona)
Note: 31 cases are not specific enough to place them accurately in a service unit. Data from May 25, 2020

"The new projections have very good implications, but now is not the time to let up," President Nez said on Tuesday. We have to continue wearing masks in public, practicing social distancing, and complying with the stay-at-home order and daily curfew."

"New data from other states show that relaxing curfews and stay-at-home orders are having serious consequences. In some areas, when states have reopened, their numbers of new cases increased," Nez added. "We must remain diligent and prepared."

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