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Posted: October 15, 2020


Tribal Leaders Share Experiences Navigating COVID-19 Impacts, Responses to Nearly 900 Virtual Attendees at NIHB National Tribal Health Conference

WASHINGTON, DC—October 14, 2020—The National Indian Health Board (NIHB) opened its annual National Tribal Health Conference to a virtual audience of nearly 900 Tribal leaders, health professionals, advocates and federal and Congressional partners to discuss Tribal health issues that are particularly poignant during a public health crisis, including COVID-19 Tribal impact and federal response, vaccine planning and the importance of maintaining community and expressing acts of love.

“There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives drastically, but it’s also allowed us in this important moment to come together and make sure that our voices are heard. The National Indian Health Board is here to support that work. It is our honor to stand with you, shoulder to shoulder during this time of uncertainty to protect our tribal citizens, our vulnerable populations and our future,” said NIHB CEO Stacy A. Bohlen. “Nothing drives out fear like facts and NIHB is also pleased to launch the Act of Love Campaign that is geared to de-politicize, promote and affirm that wearing a mask or face covering is a part of slowing the spread of COVID-19. Your actions and your voices are needed now more than ever to help our people achieve the highest level of care. Let that be your Act of Love.”

In a keynote address, Navajo Nation President and NIHB Navajo Area Board Member Jonathan Nez shared with conference attendees the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on the Navajo people, ways of life, community and economy.

“We are proud to partner with NIHB and come together to help resolve the health disparities, policies and other issues that will ultimately help to advance healthcare for Tribal Nations, including this modern-day monster known as COVID-19. With over 10,000 positive COVID-19 cases, the Navajo Nation has been hard hit by the pandemic, but thanks to strong public health efforts from the Tribe, including 24 public health emergency orders, the recovery rate on the reservation has increased. Let us remind ourselves to use our way of life teachings, our culture, tradition and language to fight these monsters. Our ancestors fought hard for us to be here today – it is now our turn as Tribal leaders, citizens to fight for what is right for the future of our people,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. “This pandemic has hit us hard in Indian Country, but here is an opportunity to challenge our lawmakers, and those running for the presidency, to fulfill those promises that were made by our and their ancestors, for better infrastructure, resources for education and healthcare.”

Two Tribal leaders – White Mountain Apache Nation Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood and Mississippi Band Choctaw of Indians Tribal Chief Cyrus Ben – joined President Nez for a panel discussion on Tribal leadership during the COVID-19 crisis. President Nez, moderating the session, asked questions about telehealth, data sharing, vaccine planning and public health education.

“The presence of COVID-19 virus across Indian Country has brought pain and hardships to many Tribes. Our communities are not only facing illnesses, deaths and grief but as leaders we are faced with uncertainties and challenges that none of us have faced before. As leaders we must continue to work together, keep open dialogue and fight for the best interest of our people,” said Chief Ben. “Unfortunately, no one place, or people are immune from the virus and we must remain vigilant in stopping the spread on our lands.”

On the topic of public education, Chairwoman Lee-Gatewood said, “White Mountain Apache was affected in a lot of ways. Our people are very social. We told people not to gather and it was difficult. We learned not to be complacent and the need to be prepared. We also did a lot of education on showing that wearing a mask doesn’t just help you, it helps others like our elders.”

To slow the spread of COVID-19, many Tribes including the Navajo Nation, White Mountain Apache and Mississippi Choctaw issued public health orders before the federal government started a response strategy, and the Tribes instituted curfews, weekend lockdowns, canceled events and closed businesses. As Tribal leaders they were not favored by Tribal citizens for the strict precautions but as sovereign Nations working with the federal government, they demanded Tribal inclusion in national COVID-19 response and relief.

“We must make sure federal partners consult with the Tribes. Our needs are unique, Tribes are different and we need to be heard. It was our hope that the Administration would develop a systematic approach as opposed to a unique approach. We need to be heard and as consultations are being done, if something hits, we are ready to go,” added Chairwoman Lee-Gatewood.

Conference attendees also heard from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan who gave an update on the agency’s Rural Action Plan and provider relief funds. Federal partners working on Operation Warp Speed – the Indian Health Service (IHS), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health – also provided an update on COVID-19 vaccine planning and countermeasures. Lastly, the IHS along with the Department of Veterans Affairs dually presented information and resources on the coordination of care for American Indian and Alaska Native veterans.

The NIHB virtual conference continues on Thursday, October 15 with a video message from Dr. Anthony Fauci, update from IHS Director RADM Michael Weahkee and a discussion about the Affordable Care Act with Senator Tom Udall (D-NM).

See the full conference agenda at:
Social media information:
  • Facebook: /NIHB1972
  • Twitter: @NIHB1
  • Hashtags: #NIHB #NTHC2020 #healthytribalcommunities #IndianCountry #Nativehealth #ReauthorizeSDPI #ActofLove #WalkwithNIHB


National Indian Health Board Mission Statement
Established by the Tribes to advocate as the united voice of federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes, NIHB seeks to reinforce Tribal sovereignty, strengthen Tribal health systems, secure resources, and build capacity to achieve the highest level of health and well-being for our People.
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