Grim Wednesday; more deaths, more COVID-19 cases

Pascua Yaqui tribal member James Molina wore a mask when he visited the health department on April 1st, the same day the tribe announced two tribal members died after contracting COVID-19. (Photo by Carina Dominguez, Indian Country Today)

Indian Country Today

Deaths reported at Navajo Nation, Pascua Yaqui, more COVID-19 cases at White Mountain Apache, Red Lake, Lummi and Kewa Pueblo * Updated 7 pm MST

The COVID-19 toll across Indian Country was grim Wednesday.

The Navajo Nation confirmed 40 new cases, the single largest daily increase.

A news release from the Navajo Nation Health Command Operations Center said the cases were reported in Tuba City and Kayenta.

There are now seven confirmed deaths in the Navajo Nation and a total of 214 COVID-19 cases. 

In the Indian health system there are 276 cases and 14 deaths confirmed.

Two citizens of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Arizona died from coronavirus complications. The two victims are female and didn’t live on the reservation, according to a March 31 news release from the tribe. No other details about the victims were released.

The Pascua Yaqui Tribal Health Services Division and the Pima County Health Department is recommending those that were in close contact with the victims to self-isolate.

The White Mountain Apache Tribe also announced its first confirmed positive case of the coronavirus on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. The patient is a tribal citizen and is in isolation at the Whiteriver Indian hospital, according to a news release.

The patient reported symptoms to the hospital last week and the hospital has implemented preventive measures to isolate and screen people who have come in contact with the patient before diagnosis and within the incubation period, according to the release.

“Now is the time for each and every one of us to do our part to slow the spread of the virus,” Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood said in a statement. “We're all in this together. We need to remain calm and take the necessary precautions to protect our loved ones.”

On March 27, Lee-Gatewood reported the death of a tribal citizen from the coronavirus. The victim did not live or work on the reservation.

In Minnesota, Red Lake Nation Chairman Darrell Seki said a tribal citizen has tested positive for the coronavirus. The citizen does not live on the reservation and lives in the nearby community of Bemidji. Seki, who has been sharing coronavirus-related information on the tribe’s Facebook, again asked for citizens to stay home and to make sure friends and family do the same.

“This is our best tool to slow the spread of the virus, enough to make sure we have enough health care, resources to treat people with care that they deserve,” Seki said. “What we stand to lose if we do not act together as a community is immense. The vast majority of our fluent speakers and many of our spiritual leaders are the people in the most danger from the COVID-19. We must come together as Anishinaabe and as members of the community that we care so much about in order to fight for and protect the things we love the most.”

The Lummi Nation in Washington state has 17 cases as of March 31. The Lummi Communications said 12 have recovered from COVID-19.

Kewa Pueblo in New Mexico announced a case on March 28. “This case represents the only positive case identified at [Santo Domingo Health Center], and the appropriate officials and corresponding healthcare facility of this community have been duly notified.” While there are no positive tests for the novel coronavirus for patients and residents of Kewa Pueblo, there have been 18 tests performed at the tribe’s health facility.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer demanded a supply of test kits and on-site laboratory on the Navajo Nation in order to expedite test results.

“We’re two weeks into this pandemic and we need many more test kits, we need testing labs in our communities so we can get results much quicker," Nez said. "The public needs to be mindful that these numbers are going to continue to increase if every family, every individual does not follow the advice of health care experts. We’re working around the clock to get the word out, but ultimately, it’s the decision of every individual. Stay home, stay safe, save lives!”

On Tuesday, President Nez issued another Executive Order extending the closure of the Executive Branch until April 26, except for essential personnel to continue essential services. The order also urged the Navajo Nation Board of Education to close schools on the Navajo Nation for the remainder of the academic year. The Navajo Nation Board of Education voted 8-0 to approve a resolution directing the closure of schools for the rest of the school year. 

Grand Canyon closed

The Department of Interior, the National Park and local health department decided it was best to close the Grand Canyon until further notice after receiving a letter from the Department of Health and Human Services.

"The Department of the Interior and the National Park Service will continue to follow the guidance of state and local health officials in making determinations about our operations," said Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt in a news release. "As soon as we received the letter from the Health and Human Services Director and Chief Health Officer for Coconino County recommending the closure of Grand Canyon National Park, we closed the park."

Tribal officials and lawmakers like Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, raised their concerns recently to the Interior about its “reckless decision to keep the National Park open.

“The health and safety of park visitors, employees, residents, volunteers, and partners at Grand Canyon National Park is the Service's number one priority,” as stated in the National Park Service statement. “The NPS has consistently assessed its park units and made modifications to its operations in accordance with CDC, state and local public health guidance, and the NPS will continue to follow the guidance of public health officials in making determinations about our operations to address this pandemic.”

National Guard helps Navajo Nation

Tuesday the Arizona National Guard flew to Kayenta on the Navajo Nation to help out with supplies, according to the KTVK. The National Guard gave 300 sets of personal protective equipment that included gowns, masks and 2,000 pairs of gloves. KTVK said the Kayenta health facility is out of supplies.

Several health professionals also helped the tribal nation turn a gym into a hospital with 50 beds for patients who don’t have severe symptoms.

On March 24, the Navajo Nation said supplies were arriving to the nation from the Strategic National Stockpile and were going to be delivered to health care facilities on the tribal nation. That was when the Navajo Nation had a total of 39 cases. As of March 31, they have 174 cases and seven deaths.

Department of Homeland Security officials told the Washington Post today that personal protective equipment gear and other medical supplies in the Department of Health and Human Services’ Strategic National Stockpile are “nearly gone.”

Janet Montesi, a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said in a statement, “The federal government will exhaust all means to identify and attain medical and other supplies needed to combat the virus.”

“FEMA planning assumptions for COVID-19 pandemic response acknowledged that the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) alone could not fulfill all requirements at the State and tribal level,” Montesi said.

The Department of Homeland Security officials said the stockpile wasn’t designed for a nation-wide response.

“The stockpile was designed to respond to handful of cities. It was never built or designed to fight a 50-state pandemic,” said one official. “This is not only a U.S. government problem. The supply chain for PPE worldwide has broken down, and there is a lot of price-gouging happening.”

The protective gear is particularly important for health care workers. “If you can’t protect the people taking care of us, it gets ugly,” the officials said.

To help move the funds along for tribal nations, Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico and vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, released some guidelines for tribal governments on the “$8 billion ‘one stop’ Tribal Coronavirus Relief Fund and the $2 billion in Tribal health provisions appropriated in the third emergency coronavirus package, the CARES Act.”

“Indian Country is on the front lines of this public health crisis, and they have been very clear that they need health, economic, and community COVID-19 recovery resources. That is why I pushed for inclusion of Tribal-specific resources in the CARES Act,” Udall said. “I am urging the administration to deploy these critical federal resources as quickly as possible with guidance from expedited, government-to-government consultations with Indian Tribes. I will keep fighting to ensure that Tribal communities have the support they need from the federal government to stay healthy and financially afloat during this national crisis.”

The stimulus package will send tribal governments $8 billion for access to COVID-19 resources to recover economically and continue essential government services. There is also more than $2 billion emergency supplemental funding for Indian Tribes, urban Indian health programs, and Native communities.

Tribes can go to the frequently asked questions guide on Udall’s website.

United Nations climate change conference

The United Nations, United Kingdom and partners in Italy decided to postpone the COP26 UN climate change conference in November.

COP26 President-Designate and Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Alok Sharma said in a statement: “The world is currently facing an unprecedented global challenge and countries are rightly focusing their efforts on saving lives and fighting COVID-19. That is why we have decided to reschedule COP26.”

The conference was scheduled to happen in Glasgow, Scotland. New dates in 2021 are being looked at.

UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa said, “Soon, economies will restart. This is a chance for nations to recover better, to include the most vulnerable in those plans, and a chance to shape the 21st century economy in ways that are clean, green, healthy, just, safe and more resilient.”

Census Today

Census Day — the date used to determine where a person lives for the once-a-decade count — arrived Wednesday with a nation almost paralyzed by the spread of the coronavirus. But census officials vowed the job would be completed by its year-end deadline.

The virus's spread forced the U.S. Census Bureau to suspend field operations for a month, from mid-March to mid-April, when the hiring process would be ramping up for up to 500,000 temporary census takers. The bureau has delayed the start of counts for the homeless and people living in group quarters like college dorms and nursing homes, and pushed back the head count's deadline from the end of July to mid-August.

The Census Bureau is required by federal statute to send the president the counts that will be used to carve up congressional districts — known as apportionment — and draw state legislative districts by Dec. 31. Some groups are suggesting the deadline be pushed back, though it's mandated by federal law.

“We are laser-focused on the statute's Dec. 31 deadline for apportionment counts and population counts. We will continue to assess all of our operations to see if there are any changes that need to be made," Michael Cook, chief of the bureau's Public Information Office, said Tuesday.

The census started in late January in rural, native villages in Alaska, but the rest of the country wasn't able to begin answering the questionnaire until the second week of March, when the bureau's self-response website went live and people received notices in the mail that they could start answering the questions. But that was only a week before many governors and mayors started issuing stay-at-home orders to slow the virus's spread, greatly hindering in-person rallies, meetings and door-knocking to raise awareness about the census.

Experts say connecting with trusted community leaders in person is the best way to reach people in hard-to-count groups that may be wary of the federal government.

“Certainly when folks are anxious about the public health issue, and kids are away from school, and they're being away from work, it's a concern that the census isn't on top of people's mind as you would want it to be," said Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The U.S. Census Bureau is spending $500 million on outreach efforts and relying on more than 300,000 nonprofits, businesses, local governments and civic groups to encourage participation in their communities. But those efforts have been hamstrung by the virus shutdown, so some are going digital.

The National Indian Child Welfare Association released guidelines on how to fill out the census form for foster children during the pandemic.

On March 25, the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin said more than 30 percent of the households on the Oneida Reservation responded to the census so far.

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Dalton Walker, Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, and the Associated Press contributed to this report.