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Arizona's indigenous communities see COVID increase at slower rate due to higher vaccination rates

Note: This story is more than 1 year old.

Arizona's indigenous communities see COVID increase at slower rate due to higher vaccination rates

  • 'It was a big scare at that time,' Valentina Nez of Tonalea says, referring to the early days of the pandemic. She received a booster shot at the Tuba City Regional Health Care mobile medical unit.
    Sierra Alvarez/Cronkite News 'It was a big scare at that time,' Valentina Nez of Tonalea says, referring to the early days of the pandemic. She received a booster shot at the Tuba City Regional Health Care mobile medical unit.

As COVID-19 cases surge across the country and reach near-record levels in Arizona, many of the state’s tribal nations are also seeing an increase in new cases.

But numbers coming from Indigenous communities in Arizona are nowhere near what the state is reporting.

Daily reported COVID-19 cases have continued to rise, with a 158% increase in the daily average of cases per day reported in Arizona from Dec. 26, 2021, to Jan. 4, 2022. Currently, Arizona is averaging approximately 6,735 new COVID-19 cases per day. 

On Monday, the number of daily reported COVID-19 cases in the state of Arizona soared to more than 14,000, the second-most since the pandemic began, surpassed only by the 17,000 reported exactly one year earlier.

Since the pandemic started, Indigenous communities across the US have been significantly impacted by COVID-19, from high infection rates to economic loss and cultural impact. 

Indigenous people have experienced the highest death toll from COVID-19, according to a 2021 report from the APM Research LAB

“Pacific Islanders, Latino, Black and Indigenous Americans all have a COVID-19 death rate of double or more that of White and Asian Americans, who experience the lowest age-adjusted rates,” the report states.

This means that 1 in 475 Indigenous Americans has died, or 210.6 deaths per 100,000, according to the report. 

And the Navajo Nation was an early example of how COVID-19 could devastate a tribal community and overwhelm its health care system.

But tribal nations have continued to work hard to protect their communities. Many implemented resolutions that locked down their communities to outsiders, kept mask mandates and once the vaccine became available launched education campaigns about it. 

On the San Carlos Apache Nation, there have been reports of an increase of COVID-19 cases, but officials at the San Carlos Apache Healthcare Corporation say it’s nowhere near what they saw during their peak of infections in November of 2020.

“We’re just ending our second year, and we did see a surge and a lot of the individuals do have mild symptoms,” said Melinda White, chief quality and compliance officer for the San Carlos Apache Healthcare Corporation. “We did have a surge the past two weeks, which relates a lot to the holidays.”

The San Carlos Apache Tribe has more than 17,000 members, with over 13,000 of them living on San Carlos Apache Nation in southeastern Arizona.

During the tribe’s peak, it established an alternative care site set up for tribal citizens who caught the virus. The site was located at the Apache Gold Casino, and it housed tribal citizens who tested positive for the virus and helped the tribe contain the spread.

“We had 252 individuals housed in the site, and 242 were positive,” White said. The site shut down in mid-2021 after the Tribe nearly halted the spread of the virus and saw days where there were zero new cases.

White credited robust acceptance of the vaccine by tribal members for making the difference this holiday season and keeping numbers from surging like 2020.

“After the vaccine came, there was a significant drop in cases. Our numbers went down,” White said. “The vaccine has made a huge difference.”

The San Carlos Apache Healthcare Corporation has been seeing an increase of COVID-19 cases this month, and White said they continue to be very active within the community for screening and testing of the virus. 

They have 24/7 testing available at the hospital and two testing sites available during normal business hours. 

“All those individuals who do test positive, we do our best to track them,” White said. A team from the hospital goes out to the patient’s home to monitor and assess their condition. “If they find that there is a need for treatment, they’ll transport the patient in.”

“I think we’re doing well in terms of managing the outbreak of COVID,” White said. 

Most of the patients being hospitalized are those who are not vaccinated, she said

The current vaccination rate among San Carlos Apache tribal citizens is about 57%, about 7,600 of the tribe’s members.

“We are working on herd immunity,” White said, and they’re making every effort to get at least 10,800 people vaccinated. The total population of the San Carlos Apache Nation that lives on tribal land is about 13,500.

White said as of Jan. 5, the hospital has not received any notification of the omicron variant being detected on the San Carlos Apache Nation.

Other tribal nations have reported an increase in COVID-19 cases since the holiday, including the Navajo Nation, Gila River Indian Community, White Mountain Apache Tribe, San Carlos Apache Tribe, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, Colorado River Indian Tribes, Hualapai Tribe, Tohono O’odham Nation and Pascua Yaqui Tribe.

The Navajo Nation often hosts weekly virtual town hall meetings to provide updates, and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez confirmed on Jan. 3 that the omicron variant has been detected within the community.

“The first known case of the omicron variant has been found here on the Navajo Nation. This is not a time to panic, but we must step up our efforts to take the necessary precautions to limit the spread of this new variant in our communities,” Nez said in a press release. The tribe’s omicron case was detected in a sample collected from the Utah Navajo Health System.

The Navajo Department of Health also issued a health advisory notice on Jan. 3 for 42 communities across the Navajo Nation that have an uncontrolled spread of COVID-19. 

Overall, Nez said during a virtual town hall meeting on Jan 4, that the Navajo Nation has been seeing very low numbers of COVID-19 cases being reported. 

“It fluctuates from the double digits to the triple digits” he added, but it’s nothing compared to the thousands of cases being reported daily off the Navajo Nation. “I think the highest we got is over 100, but one positive case is one too many.”

Nez noted that “vaccines do work,” as COVID’s spread on tribal lands has been blunted because 72% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated. Among the elder population, the vaccination rate stands at 87%. 

“Those who are not vaccinated are the ones ending up in the hospital,” he said.

The Pascua Yaqui Tribe released a video of how their community has been impacted by the pandemic. The tribe reported it has had 2,534 positive COVID-19 cases to date, or about 37 of every 100 tribal members. More than 7,300 of the tribe’s members have been vaccinated, and its goal is to vaccinate as many of their citizens as possible to reach herd immunity.

“We’ve been here for thousands of years and will continue to be here for thousands of years,” said Pascua Yaqui Tribal Chairman Peter S. Yucupicio in the video. “We’re still here.”

Prevention efforts within Indigenous communities continue even among one of Arizona’s most remote tribes. The Havasupai Tribe homeland is located eight miles below the rim of the Grand Canyon, and yet, they have been actively involved with vaccination efforts throughout their community in order to protect the tribe’s citizens. 

The Havasupai Nation has been on lockdown and will remain on lockdown for the foreseeable future, according to a statement from the tribe. This is done out of an abundance of caution for the protection and survival of tribal citizens.

The tribe recently expanded its suspension of tourism within their borders due to COVID-19 concerns. All tourists are prohibited from entering any Havasupai tribal land.

“The Tribal Council has continued to consult with health experts and has ultimately decided that we will continue the suspension of tourism until June 1, 2022,” Chairman Thomas Siyuja, Sr said in a statement. “There are still so many unknowns with the new COVID-19 variants that for the health and safety of our tribal community, it is in the best interest to remain closed to tourists.”

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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