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The White House: Press Briefing by White House COVID-19 Response Team and Public Health Officials
Indian Country still bearing brunt of COVID-19
Hospitalization and death rates highest among Native people
Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Native Americans suffer the highest rates of hospitalizations and death rates due to COVID-19, a federal task force chairwoman said Monday during a news conference.

Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of the White House’s COVID-19 Equity Task Force, said Native people are 3.6 times more likely to be hospitalized as a result of the coronavirus than White people. That’s compared to Latinos, who are 3.2 times more likely to be hospitalized than White people, and Black people who are 2.9 times more likely to be hospitalized.

Native people are also 2.5 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than White people. By comparison, Latinos are 2.3 times more likely to die than white people, and Black people are 2.1 times more likely to die, Nunez-Smith said.

She said minority people don’t seem to suffer disproportionate rates of infection, though she said that may be in part due to a lack of adequate testing within minority communities. At the same time, minority people tend to suffer from disproportionate rates of underlying health conditions that may help explain their higher rates of hospitalization and death.

Navajo Nation Office of President and Vice President: COVID-19 Vaccines for Elderly – January 31, 2021

But she said it’s difficult to explain the causes of disproportionate rates of hospitalization and death because a significant percentage of health care providers and virus test facilities don’t report the ethnic makeup of the people they test. In fact, federal officials don’t know the ethnic makeup of almost 49 percent of those who test positive for COVID-19, Nunez-Smith said.

Without a complete picture of COVID-19 data, it will be difficult for federal officials to adequately address health inequities, she said.

“We’re not suggesting these problems are easily solved,” she said.

On January 20, President Joe Biden signed an executive order seeking to ensure an equitable federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic. His order created the COVID-19 Equity Task Force and established a program to gather data related to equity.

“We’re committed to making progress from here on out,” she said.

A health worker prepares a COVID-19 vaccine on the Navajo Nation on January 30, 2021. Photo: Navajo Nation Office of President and Vice President

At Monday’s press conference, federal officials also announced plans for the country’s first over-the-counter, at-home COVID-19 test, though they said it will take several months before it becomes widely available.

Andy Slavitt, senior adviser on the White House COVID-19 Response Team, said the test has been proven to be 95 percent accurate and yields results within 15 minutes. The test also is less invasive than the typical nasal pharyngeal swab.

“After you take the swab, you put the sample into a digital analyzer, which will send a result to your smartphone in about 15 minutes,” he said.

Only 100,000 test kits per month will be delivered to the United States from now until July by the company that manufactures the test. However, the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently awarded a $230 million contract to Ellume, an Australian digital diagnostics company, in order to ramp up manufacture of the at-home test kits and provide 8.5 million of them per month to the United States.

The United States just finished its most fatal month since the pandemic began nearly a year ago, with more than 95,000 deaths in January alone, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 440,000 Americans have died as a result of the virus.

At the same time, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are falling, giving federal officials hope that vaccinations may soon start reducing death rates, she said. New cases of the virus are averaging about 148,000 a day, compared to nearly a quarter-million in mid-January.

Meanwhile, the number of Americans hospitalized with COVID-19 fell below 100,000 for the first time in two months.

“While the recent decline in cases and hospital admissions are encouraging, they are counterbalanced by the stark reality that in January we recorded the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in any month since the pandemic began,” Walensky said.

Monday’s news conference did not feature a representative from the Indian Health Service. The White House press office did not return a request for comment about the presence of the IHS on the new administration’s COVID-19 Response Team.