'We need all the support we can get': Tribal leaders talk challenges in COVID-19 response

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Leaders in Indian Country talked about challenges of securing resources to respond to the coronavirus during a roundtable discussion with U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva on April 17.

Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act in March. The act allocated $2.2 trillion to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, which included $8 billion for tribes.

"We recognize that this silent killer is threatening our way of life, which is why we need all the support we can get, starting with federal dollars," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said.

He added that the speed with which the federal government is distributing money is frustrating because agencies are requiring tribes to submit grant applications.

"This is a global pandemic. Indian Country needs these dollars now. It is also upsetting to see how the voice of tribal governments has been ignored through this process," Nez said, then added later that none of the $8 trillion should go to for-profit corporations operated by tribes.

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A press release from Nez's office criticized the decision to allow tribal-owned corporations in Alaska to be eligible for funding under the CARES Act. Several tribal leaders have panned the inclusion, saying it will greatly reduce allocation amounts for tribes.

The Navajo Nation exceeded 1,000 positive tests for COVID-19 this week and accounts for 57% of total positive cases for the Indian Health Service, but those numbers do not count when dividing funding, Nez said.

A screenshot shows U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., speaking at a roundtable discussion with Native American leaders on April 17. The event was streamed live on Facebook.

COVID-19 testing limited, despite equipment arriving

Leaders also commented about rapid test equipment received from federal agencies.

The Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Health Board is a consortium of 18 tribes in the Great Plains region and manages the Oyate Health Center in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Jerilyn Church, the health board's CEO, said they have used $3 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to further emergency response to the coronavirus.

While they appreciate the amount, an ongoing concern is the lack of available test kits, Church said.

She explained that the Oyate Health Center received a rapid testing unit. However, only 24 test kits were provided to the facility.

"We're not able to provide testing to the public. We're reserving those 24 tests for our health providers in the event any of them get sick we can test fairly quickly," she said.

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She added that when the height of the coronavirus curve hits Rapid City, they will need at least 1,400 test kits and 4,000 test kits for the region.

"Twenty-four is being far short of what the need actually will be," Church said.

A screenshot shows Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez during a roundtable discussion between U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Native American leaders on April 17. The event was streamed live on Facebook.

Peggy Flanagan is the lieutenant governor of Minnesota and a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.

"The widespread shortage of tests has prevented tribes from being able to monitor their numbers, and in urban areas, Indian health organizations are already running out of money and are running out of personal protective equipment and supplies," she said then added that tribes need direct access to federal resources for health care.

For Flanagan, the disease has impacted her personally because her brother died from COVID-19 a few weeks ago.

"It has been one of the things that has driven me to ensure that our Native people, that we are seen, and we are heard, and we are valued and that none of us are a statistic," she said.

New Mexico, tribal leaders to discuss COVID-19

New Mexico PBS will broadcast this weekend a virtual town hall between state officials and Native American leaders, to share information about response efforts to COVID-19 in tribal communities.

Participants include Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, All Pueblo Council of Governors Chairman J. Michael Chavarria and Vice Chairman Wilfred Hererra Jr.

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Also scheduled to appear are secretaries from various state departments, including New Mexico Department of Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo. Conroy Chino, member of the Pueblo of Acoma and a former reporter, will moderate the discussion.

The program will broadcast on Channel 5.1 at 6 p.m. April 19.

It will repeat on Channel 5.1 at 11 a.m. April 26 and on Channel 5.3 at 6 p.m. April 22 and at 1 p.m. April 25.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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