California Consortium for Urban Indian Health: #MaskUp #StaySafe #COVID19
Indian health providers continue to combat COVID-19 a year into pandemic
Tuesday, February 23, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic in California has led to rising rates of domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health problems and food insecurity among the state’s Native population, a tribal health advocate said Monday.

Virginia Hedrick, executive director of the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health, said the pandemic has exacerbated social and health disparities that existed within tribal communities before COVID-19 became rampant.

“None of these inequities were necessarily borne out of the pandemic,” she said. “These are things that are being highlighted by the pandemic.”

“I hope it’s something that we will learn lessons from.”

During a conference call Monday, representatives from the California Department of Public Health, tribal health advocates and a state epidemiologist described their efforts to curb coronavirus infection rates within tribal communities.

As of Monday, 8,701 Native people in California have tested positive for COVID-19. That amounts to about 0.3 percent of all positive cases in the state. Native people account for about 0.5 percent of the state’s population. About 165 Natives in the state have died from the virus.

California is home to the second largest number of tribes of any state and the largest number of Native people, said Christina Snider, tribal advisor for Gov. Gavin Newsom. She said the governor’s office has hosted weekly government-to-government phone calls with elected tribal leaders and Native health advocates in which state health experts have provided information about available coronavirus response funds and technical assistance.

Snider said the governor’s office also has included tribal representatives on state vaccine advisory committees and has allocated $50 million to counties and tribes for non-congregate sheltering of people who test positive for COVID-19.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Newsom administration has included tribal nations in frequent communications and calls as government partners in order to facilitate access to the best information, tools and resources to ensure the safety of their communities, patrons and employees,” she said.

California Consortium for Urban Indian Health: COVID-19 Update – February 21, 2021

Other speakers Monday talked about their efforts to promote mask-wearing, vaccination and testing and contact tracing within tribal communities in order to curb infection rates.

Vanesscia Cresci, director of the Research and Public Health Department at the California Rural Indian Health Board, said her organization has helped secure personal protective equipment for tribal communities and has conducted surveillance epidemiology and data analysis. She said the health board also has developed educational materials, including posters and videos featuring tribal leaders, elders and Native physicians, to promote mask-wearing and vaccinations.

“It resonates with others if they hear it directly from the individuals themselves, somebody that looks like them,” she said.

Cresci said the pandemic has hurt the mental health of tribal youth and elders, who have struggled with social distancing.

“There is a need to acknowledge what the long-term effects of isolation and distance learning may be having on tribal youth and also looking at elder mental health, too,” she said.

But she offered hope that tribal communities would survive COVID-19, just as they had survived previous pandemics.

“We’ve survived a lot of things that have happened to tribal communities, but we continue to thrive and survive,” she said. “We are resilient.”

Aurimar Ayala, epidemiology manager at the California Tribal Epidemiology Center, said her organization has facilitated more than 10,000 COVID-19 tests of Native people, as well as provided case investigation and contract tracing support to tribal communities.

She said it has been difficult to gather timely and accurate data showing the impact of coronavirus on tribal communities in California. But the California Tribal Epidemiology Center now provides a daily summary of data that is relevant to Native people and recently completed its 236th such report, Ayala said.

“I am just really hopeful that this pandemic will be over soon,” she said.

In California, 56,250 doses of coronavirus vaccine have been distributed to Native people, including 37,800 prime doses and 18,450 boost doses, according to the Indian Health Service National Supply Service Center.

Still, much work remains.

In California, nearly all health care facilities that serve Native people are operated either by tribes or by urban Indian health facilities. Yet despite the fact that nearly 90 percent of the state’s Native population lives in urban areas, funding to urban Indian health facilities accounts for just 1 percent of the Indian Health Service’s budget, said Hedrick of the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health.

In addition, urban Indian health facilities don’t have funds for purchased or referred care, meaning patients who need health care beyond that offered by the urban Indian health care facility won’t have their health care costs covered at a private health care facility. And even tribally operated health care facilities only receive enough federal funds to cover about 50 percent of their patients’ purchased or referred care needs, Hedrick said.

“I’m certain that the budgets are just gone within tribal health programs as well,” she said.

But she also expressed hope that tribal communities would weather the coronavirus storm.

“This is not the first time an infectious disease has disproportionately impacted Indian Country,” she said. “This is not the first time that we will survive it, that we will be resilient, that we will see another generation.”