Tribes ‘very close to reaching a breaking point’ in COVID-19 response

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A "No Visitors" sign was erected at the entrance to the Walker River Paiute Tribe reservation last spring. The sign was shot and vandalized in May. (Photo courtesy of the Walker River Paiute Tribe)

WASHINGTON – Native American tribes are facing a dire situation from the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing some of them to a breaking point, American Indian health leaders told members of Congress Wednesday.

In many places, tribal leaders are scrambling to respond to disproportional illness and death in their communities. Confirmed COVID-19 cases among American Indians and Alaska Natives are 3.5 times higher than that of non-Hispanic whites, according to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC looked at cases from 23 states that track racial data, including Nevada.

“The state of affairs in Indian Country remains dire,” Francys Crevier, CEO of the National Council of Urban Indian Health, said at the hearing held by a panel of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee.

Nevada Republican Rep. Mark Amodei, a member of the Appropriations subcommittee, attended the hearing but did not make a statement or ask any questions. Amodei’s vast rural district overlaps tribal lands.

Amodei’s spokesman said the issue is of concern for the congressman, who supported federal aid for tribes as part of the House coronavirus relief bill last spring.

Amodei “will continue working with his colleagues on the subcommittee to support ongoing coronavirus response efforts,” spokesman Logan Ramsey Tucker said.

There are 27 federally recognized tribal nations in Nevada. About 52,000 Nevadans (almost 2 percent of the state’s population) identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Kevin Allis, CEO of the National Congress of American Indians, a non-profit that gathers policy recommendations from American Indian and Alaska Native governments, called the situation in Indian Country a “national emergency.”

“Tribal leaders have reported to us that their nations, their existing systems of service delivery and infrastructure, are under a great deal of stress and are very close to reaching a breaking point, as they try to seek to maintain the status quo and increase essential government functions in response to COVID-19,” said Allis, who is also an enrolled member of the Forest County Potawatomi Community in northern Wisconsin.

Tribal leaders and Native American health groups have asked Congress for additional relief as communities face lost government revenues and more demands on health systems and schools.

“We may not have been able to prevent the outbreak of COVID-19 but we absolutely could have mitigated its worst impacts in Indian Country,” said Carolyn Angus-Hornbuckle, director of public health policy for the National Indian Health Board.  “Tribal nations are battling a catastrophic disease without necessary funds and resources to protect and preserve life.”

Looking for federal help

Nationwide, American Indians die from COVID-19  at nearly 50 percent higher rates than whites, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

But the group’s data for Nevada does not bear the same disproportionate effect: The percentage of illness and deaths from COVID-19 among American Indians in Nevada tracks their share of the population.

Nevertheless, the virus has had serious effects for tribes in the state. Since the start of the pandemic, tribal leaders in Nevada have had to deal with theft, vandalism, a lack of funding and declining revenue.

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) said lawmakers need to keep an eye on making sure health providers in American Indian Country have access to the eventual vaccine for COVID-19 and the infrastructure to store and distribute it.

“I am just worried with all the challenges, if and when we do have a vaccine, it is very important to make sure Indian Country is not left out,” Pingree said.

The $2.2 trillion CARES Act that Congress passed in March included $8 billion directly for tribes to pay for costs associated with the health response to COVID-19. But representatives from American Indian health groups told lawmakers yesterday that restrictions on spending have made it hard to use some of the funds.

Crevier of the National Council of Urban Indian Health said there has been confusion and too many restrictions on the spending. For example, she said it can help pay for COVID-19 tests but not necessarily the staff needed to administer the tests. And she said the administrative burden has been too heavy.

Allison Winter
Allison Winter is a Washington D.C. correspondent for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes Nevada Current.