Federal relief aid coming as death toll rises in Indian Country

Indian Country Today

First Alaska Native death due to COVID-19 reported Friday; another from White Mountain Apache

Much needed financial help is coming to Indian Country and to the pockets of citizens.

The Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act is law and its historic $2.2 trillion rescue package was signed into law on Friday. Included is $8 billion allocated for tribal governments and $2 billion for emergency supplemental funding for federal Indian programs. It also includes a one-time payment of $1,200 to most U.S. citizens with income at or below $75,000 and $500 per child under the age of 17. The payment is reduced for those earning more and ends at $99,000.

The relief package was approved on the same day the country reached 100,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, according to USA Today.

Known cases across Indian Country continue to increase daily as many tribal governments rely on social media to inform citizens with the latest information. Indian Country Today has confirmed five deaths of Native people related to the coronavirus. On Friday, an Alaska Native and a citizen of the White Mountain Apache Tribe died from coronavirus complications.

Of those, the Navajo Nation has the most confirmed cases in Indian Country. As of Friday evening, 71 cases were confirmed. Indian Health Service has reported 110 positive cases as of Thursday. For most people, it causes mild to moderate symptoms and the vast majority of people recover. The virus can cause more severe illness in older adults or people with existing health problems and recovery time can take longer.

On Friday, the U.S House approved the rescue package and President Trump signed it not long after. The Senate approved the package on Wednesday. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, spoke Friday on the House floor in support of the act. Haaland is the co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus and vice chair of the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States.

Haaland issued the following statement on the law passing:

“No community should be left behind during this pandemic, but it was an all-out fight with the Administration and Republicans in the Senate to ensure tribes, urban Indian organizations and tribal organizations have the resources they need to keep Native American communities healthy and supported economically. We fought for it every step of the way, especially the $8 billion for tribes in the relief package to ensure Native Americans have the same access to health care resources and economic support as other governments.”

Here are some package highlights directly related to Indian Country:

  • $8 billion set-aside for Tribal Governments to use for expenditures incurred due to the COVID-19 public health emergency
  • $1.032 billion for the Indian Health Service (IHS) Services Account
  • $1.5 billion for CDC grants and cooperative agreements of which Indian Tribes, Tribal Organizations, and Urban Indian Health Organizations are eligible to apply

For a complete fact sheet, click here.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, said in a statement that he is proud that the package dedicates resources to tribal nations.

“... I worked very hard to ensure tribal nations are equipped to face and fight the unknown challenges ahead with this coronavirus like other state and local authorities,” he said. Oklahoma is home to 39 sovereign tribes, and each one plays an invaluable role in the lives and health of their members and surrounding communities.”

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Arizona, chair of the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States, said the act is a good first step.

“This pandemic is showing the many cracks in our nation’s ability to take care of its own people, and those failures were already glaring in Indian Country and the U.S. territories before the virus reached our shores,” Grijalva said in a statement. “The next bill we pass needs to do more than keep our heads above water for a few more months - it needs to put our country on a path to ending the health and economic disparities we can no longer take for granted.”

(Related story: Indian Country's COVID-19 syllabus)

As the coronavirus spreads across the nation, more tribes have reported cases and even deaths related.

First Alaska Native death due to COVID-19 announced today

The statewide Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium today announced the first death of an Alaska Native due to the coronavirus.

According to its statement, the patient was seen for an unrelated reason on Monday, March 23, and tested for COVID-19. On Wednesday, test results came back showing the patient had contracted coronavirus. The patient had been self-isolating at home and was doing well until he or she began deteriorating rapidly on Wednesday. The emergency department told the patient to return to the hospital where staff were prepared to put him or her into immediate isolation. The patient was reportedly put into a negative pressure room that prevents the virus from spreading outside the room and cared for until today when the patient died due to complications related to COVID-19.

Age, gender, and tribal affiliation information were not available at the time of this report. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide tribal health organization, co-manages the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage with Southcentral Foundation.

In Arizona, White Mountain Apache Tribe Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood the death of one of their tribal citizens on Facebook. No other details were explained except that the victim did not live on the reservation and worked elsewhere.

A Otoe-Missouri tribal council member announced that she tested positive for the coronavirus and would self-quarantine for 14 days.

Myra L. Pickering learned she tested positive on March 24. She said she hadn’t been feeling well since March 9 and took a few days off before going back to work. She was diagnosed with pneumonia on March 16, but didn’t meet the CDC guidelines to be tested for COVID-19, according to a detailed article on the tribe’s website. On March 23, she was diagnosed with double pneumonia and was tested for the virus.

“I’m not as sick as I was last week, but I’m still struggling at times to breathe,” she said. “I am not out of the woods yet. I don’t have a fever and have been fever free for the past 48 hours. I’m just coughing now.

“The only underlying medical condition I have is diabetes, but it is controlled. I have no idea how I got the virus, but now that Oklahoma has confirmed community exposure, it could have been from anywhere.”

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians announced its first case of the coronavirus on Friday. No other details were shared about the individual except that they were in isolation at their home on the Qualla Boundary.

As of Friday morning, 30 patients have been tested at Cherokee Indian Hospital, 25 came back negative, one positive and the four others pending, according to Cherokee One Feather.

In terms of precaution, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes are the latest to issue a stay-at-home order for the Fort Hall Reservation. A number of other tribes across Indian Country have issued similar orders.

The order is in effect until April 17 and doesn’t affect essential travel like medical appointments, grocery shopping and farming.

(Related story: ‘Be good to each other’ (and share a virtual coffee))

Coronavirus doesn’t just affect patients, but healthcare workers too.

Shortly after he finished his night shift at a hospital in Santa Clara, Calif. Jordan Kor, still in his scrubs, sat in his car and recorded a powwow song.

He posted it to the Facebook group Social Distance Powwow around 8 a.m. Thursday and went to bed.

Kor is Tarahumara and Wapetonwon Lakota. He is a Step 5 Tech which means he acts as the eyes, ears and hands for doctors and nurses. He helps assess patients when they arrive, he does intake for ambulance patients and he makes sure rooms are constantly cleaned.

Overall he has more than 15 years of experience in the medical field.

“I was talking to somebody and no matter how much training you go though, it’s completely different when you’re dealing with the real thing,” he said. He adds that as a father of three, it’s even more worrisome.

Kor says it was already the middle of cough, cold and flu season and then the coronavirus hit.

(Related story: COVID-19 financial strain? Here are resources in 50 states)

“But then when the testing started, this was COVID-19. Three weeks to a month ago, it started getting extremely busy. Then everything about COVID started coming out. In emergency medicine you’re taught to look at things quickly and assess. It all kind of clicked at once for everybody.”

“Up until a few days ago we were the busiest county in the country,” he says and acknowledges how hectic it is now in New York and L.A.

As the CDC recommends social distancing, he says it goes against the grain for Native people.

“We’re social people. We’re very communal people. The concept of social distancing is….” he trails off. “I know that’s a tough one. Culturally, it’s really difficult but medically, the more things I’m learning about not just the amount of severe cases, but who is the first to display those symptoms, not necessarily older people, or those with asthma, obese, bad livers, or diabetics.”

“Then you hear about those who are young and healthy and exercise, I'm just getting floored. The big thing that’s made a difference is social distancing and washing hands.”

Kor’s video clearly made an impact and at last count it had 1k shares, 5k likes, and more than 600 comments.

“I think just about every conversation I”ve had with anybody in the last week, ambulance drivers, my own family, friends, pow wow clan, people hitting me up on the internet, asking me, all sorts of people ended with. ‘Keep your social distance and wash your hands!”

As medical workers he says it’s almost become a joke at his hospital.

“Why did it take a global pandemic for people to wash their damn hands!”

(Related story: Boost your mood … on quarantine)

In education, there are new updates too.

The Diné College on the Navajo Nation has postponed spring commencement to a date not yet determined, according to a news release. The college shifted to online-only classes on March 23.

“The challenge is for both faculty members and students,” Provost Geraldine Garrity said in a statement. “Because Diné College is a unique teaching institution with an emphasis in cultural, history and language, most of the Navajo language, history and culture faculty members have to embrace the online format by being creative.”

This morning New Mexico officials announced all public schools will be closed for the rest of the school year. This will affect roughly 34,4000 Native students across the state in 23 school districts.

Administrators say public schools will shift to a “learn-at-home model” where students will be given instruction through e-learning. In places where students don’t have access to the internet, school districts say they will accommodate that with alternatives such as hard-copy lessons.

High school seniors will have to demonstrate eligibility for graduation by showing competency in four ways in order to graduate:

  • Passing a locally designed test,
  • Completing a locally designed series of assignments,
  • Achieving a set cut score on a college entrance exam,
  • Demonstrating applied work

At the moment, the state says all graduations will be postponed until it is safe to resume mass gatherings. Many schools have publicly announced that regardless of when a graduation needs to happen, it will.

Students will also be offered free breakfast and lunch for pick-up. In addition, the state says all public school personnel will continue to be paid.

Ever heard of a virtual powwow?

Tomorrow organizers will host their first “Social Distance Powwow” using Facebook Live. The virtual event will feature two sessions. To join, you need to be a member of the official Facebook group.

“Join us at 1pm & 7pm Mountain Standard time for 2 sessions, featuring some of the talented Indigenous Emcees, Singers & Dancers from the Powwow World!!!” a post in the group’s Facebook page says.

Dancers who want to participate are encouraged to be ready as organizers will invite them to join the live feed throughout the day. So far, the group has more than 90,000 members. You can find it here.

Other coronavirus-related news

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson,55, has tested positive for the coronavirus, the first leader of a major nation to contract COVID-19, according to the AP. He said he was tested Thursday after showing mild symptoms.

“I’ve taken a test, that’s come out positive so I am working from home, I am self-isolating, and that’s entirely the right thing to do, Johnson said on Twitter.

The first NBA player to test positive for the coronavirus has been cleared by the Utah Department of Health, according to NBA reporter Chris Mannix. Rudy Gobert was the NBA’s first positive test, which resulted in the league shutting down on March 12. Gobert’s teammate Donovan Mitchell has also been cleared, according to Mannix.

The Real ID deadline has been pushed back a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Department of Homeland Security extended the ID enforcement deadline a full year to Oct. 1, 2021, according to CNBC.

The Real ID is a result of raised security standards for state-issued driver’s licenses. Once in effect, a regular driver’s license or state-issued ID would not get potential airplane passengers past the Transportation Security Administration. The Real ID generally is an upgraded driver’s license or state ID.

A Real ID is not necessarily needed to fly once the deadline comes. A passport, a tribal ID and other valid forms of identification will continue to be accepted.

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Aliyah Chavez, Joaqlin Estus, Patty Talahongva, Dalton Walker and the Associated Press contributed to this report.


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