COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting indigenous Americans

Published: Aug. 12, 2020 at 12:17 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - In April, the Navajo Nation in Utah, New Mexico and Arizona was experiencing one of the worst COVID-19 pandemics in the United States. At one point, Navajo leaders reported a per-capita case right that was the highest in the country. Since then, strict curfews, masking rules and distancing mandates have helped the community to flatten its curb, but the initial outbreak was enough to get the attention of researchers.

Dr. Nicole Redvers is an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota. She has been observing the alarmingly high rate of COVID cases among American Indians and Alaska Natives. According to Redvers, what happened to the Navajo was not an isolated incident.

“One in about 1600 indigenous Americans are impacted by COVID, compared to just over one in 3200. It’s a huge difference,” Redvers said. “Right away, about 34 % of American Indians and Alaska Natives are at a higher risk, just automatically by having many secondary chronic conditions -- such as diabetes or high blood pressure.”

Redvers points to examples like the 15% of COVID deaths in Arizona that are native case, despite the fact that they only account for 5.5% of the population. In New Mexico, natives represent 43% of positive COVID cases, but only 10% of the state’s total population.

“This is across the board. We see numbers like this in South Dakota, Montana and Mississippi,” she told KTUU.

In Alaska, communities have seen a recent trend of increased COVID-19 transmission. According to the CDC, America’s largest state currently ranks 4th lowest in total COVID cases -- behind Hawaii, Wyoming and Vermont.

At the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Dr. Robert Onders serves as the Medical Director of Community and Health Systems Improvement. He attributes the early actions taken by native community leaders to the low case count in rural communities and villages.

“Most states are employing a mitigation strategy, looking at hospital admissions and capacity as indicators for whether you’re doing well or not” Dr. Onders said, “I think our rural communities are really taking an early identification and eradication strategy. That means testing is key.”

According to Onders, ANTHC has made providing testing capabilities a focus of their role in assisting villages and rural communities, but the recent national surge is putting a strain on the testing supplies. A more immediate concern is the severity of the cases that his staff has seen.

Onders told KTUU that in order to protect Native Alaskan communities from the threat posed by events like the COVID-19 pandemic, disproportionate investments need to be made in rural Alaska -- addressing issues like a lack of running water, which has plagued villages for decades.

“Already we are seeing Alaska Natives have a higher rate of hospitalization, a higher rate of death and a higher rate of COVID,” he said. “We have to disproportionately invest, if we want equitable outcomes.”

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