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NM Tribal Response Plan focuses on lockdowns, funerals

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico’s Indian Affairs Department released a Tribal Response Plan this week to help the state’s tribes, nations and pueblos address COVID-19.

In a letter sent to leaders this week, Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo, a member of Sandia Pueblo, said the plan was created to offer resources and guidance to indigenous communities, while respecting tribal sovereignty. It was developed with input from tribal leaders and public health experts.

“In the Pueblos there is a saying: ‘Respect is never severed.’ Like respect, the values of commitment, love and compassion must also never be severed,” Trujillo wrote. “By holding true to these values and not allowing the crisis to divide us, our communities will endure and thrive.”

Among the mitigation strategies in the plan are stay-at-home orders, limiting entry and exit points on tribal land, a curfew and suspension of gatherings of more than five people.

“Especially last week, with the San Felipe outbreak, it became clear that this virus is at our doorstep,” said state Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, who helped create the document. “But this has really been an all-hands-on-deck approach. We wanted to get this blueprint out to our tribal communities. Here at Sandia Pueblo, we have restrictions on who comes in and who leaves, for the protection of our people.”

The Navajo Nation, which has had 22 COVID-19 deaths and 597 cases as of Friday, has implemented a stay-at-home order and a weekend-long curfew to curb the spread of the disease. Many pueblos in New Mexico have done the same, prohibiting visitors and screening residents or essential employees entering the pueblos for COVID-19 symptoms.

Lente said leaders were respectful in offering guidance on the delicate subject of deaths and cultural customs during the coronavirus outbreak.

“During this pandemic, it is very important to understand that changes will have to be made to the way in which we gather to mourn, bury and carry out associated cultural activities,” Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo wrote in an executive order Friday. “The Pueblo will offer guidelines to assist families during these difficult times and will provide support with burial.”

The Indian Affairs Department recommends tribes follow the state’s restriction on large gatherings, including the frequent home visits and large community meals that are common cultural customs when a tribal member dies.

“Bringing community members together to pay their last respects – whether the person died from COVID-19 or some other cause – creates real possibilities for the virus to be spread by those who may be asymptomatic or who may be recovering from COVID-19,” the plan reads.

New Mexico’s Indian Affairs Department also echoes federal guidance that personal protective equipment be worn at all times when handling or transporting the deceased.

Tribes and pueblos can seek state and federal assistance in creating incident command centers and COVID-19 test sites.

After a tribal member is confirmed to have COVID-19, the state Department of Health and the Albuquerque Area Southwest Tribal Epidemiology Center help trace who else may have been exposed. Tribes are encouraged to identify isolation sites for COVID-19 patients who do not require acute care at a hospital.

The New Mexico Department of Transportation can provide road signs or other resources to restrict public access to tribal land.

Secretary Trujillo told leaders that the state’s indigenous communities should draw from each other’s unique strengths during the pandemic.

“This is how our people have endured and sustained ourselves since time immemorial,” Trujillo wrote.

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