Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
COVID-19 clusters have flared up in tribal communities this week, as more than 80 people have been infected with the virus in two pueblos in Sandoval County.
As of Tuesday evening, the Pueblo of San Felipe – about 20 miles north of Albuquerque off Interstate 25 – had 52 reported cases. Zia Pueblo – northwest of Rio Rancho – had 31 reported cases.
“If this statement does not make you realize how real and close to home this truly is, then we don’t know what will,” Zia Pueblo Acting Gov. Floyd Toribio wrote in a memo announcing infections to tribal members over the weekend. “We are a small, close-knit community with strong family connections.”
The state Department of Health has determined the cases on Zia and San Felipe pueblos are a result of community spread, according to a news release from the New Mexico Governor’s Office. The two pueblos have fewer than 3,000 total members, according to census data.
“State health officials are working with tribal officials to contain the spread of COVID-19 and provide care to those who have tested positive,” said Nora Meyers Sackett, the spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
She said the Department of Health has conducted extensive testing in both pueblos.
The combined 83 cases make up the majority of cases reported in Sandoval County, where there are a total of 128 cases.
The number of cases in New Mexico reached 794 Tuesday, as officials announced 109 more positive cases across a dozen counties.
The cases also include new positive tests from La Vida Llena, a retirement community in Northeast Albuquerque, where 24 residents and 23 staff members have now contracted COVID-19. Two residents of the retirement community have died.
The state’s death toll, meanwhile, climbed to 13 with the death of a Bernalillo County man in his 30s with underlying health conditions. He is the youngest New Mexican to die of the virus.
Tribal governments, including the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico, have been grappling with how to protect their members from the pandemic.
Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, said many living on tribal lands don’t have access to the internet – and therefore can’t get up-to-date information, putting them at a disadvantage.
“For the most part, many of our tribal areas don’t have the same luxury as many of our urban areas do where they can go down to the street to the pharmacy and pick up their prescription and they don’t live close to a grocery store where they can get groceries,” said Lente, whose district includes seven pueblos. “Many of these folks have to rely on an hour or a 30-minute trip into Albuquerque or some other place where they can get those supplies.”
For his part, Lente said, he has been in touch with council members on the pueblos to try to get them more resources, including personal protective equipment and thermometers. He is also working on ways to provide more information and resources to pueblo governments, including by putting together a town hall to address their questions and concerns.
“We’re trying to deal with different elements of this problem and trying to combat this invisible enemy in the best way that we can at this point,” Lente said.
Officials from Zia and San Felipe pueblos did not respond to requests for comment or interviews from the Journal on Tuesday.
However, the Zia Pueblo Office of the Governor posted a memo to all tribal members on its Facebook page outlining the tribe’s “stay-at-home” order and urging residents to take the virus seriously. The pueblo has fewer than 1,000 residents, according to recent census data.
Both Zia and San Felipe tribal governments issued stay-at-home orders last week, implementing curfews, directing residents to not leave the pueblo and barring visitors.
Toribio, the acting governor of Zia Pueblo, also designated two days a week – Tuesday and Wednesday – as shopping days and asked that only one or two people from each household visit the store.
“If the ‘Stay at Home’ Order is not taken seriously or ignored, even by one person, more harm will be inflicted upon Zia Members,” Toribio wrote in the memo. “Please, our Zia People, abide by the ‘Stay at Home’ Order. Practice all social distancing guidelines and frequently follow through with personal hygiene recommendations set forth by Public Health experts.”
The governor of San Felipe Pueblo, which has about 2,700 members, declared a state of emergency and issued a stay-at-home order on March 31, when there were three confirmed cases of COVID-19.
San Felipe and Zia are just the latest to see spikes in COVID-19 cases.
The Navajo Nation announced 42 more cases Tuesday for a total of 426. That’s a rate several times higher than New Mexico’s.
Zuni Pueblo, in McKinley County south of Gallup, announced its first death of a tribal member Sunday.
Journal staff writer Dan McKay contributed to this report.