Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico’s Native American tribes and pueblos have been disproportionately impacted by the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, according to new data released Tuesday by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration.
Recent COVID-19 outbreak clusters on tribal land – including on the Navajo Nation – have led to elevated infection rates, with Native Americans making up 36.7% of the state’s confirmed coronavirus cases, according to the state-level data.
In the 2019 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, 10.9% of the state’s population was identified as Native American.
A Lujan Grisham spokesman said the state Department of Health has conducted extensive testing in Native American communities where clusters of the disease have been identified – including the Navajo Nation, Zia Pueblo and San Felipe Pueblo.
That could at least partly explain the disproportionate share of the Native American population in New Mexico’s total positive tests.
But former Cochiti Pueblo Gov. Regis Pecos said more widespread testing and other strategies were not deployed until after the outbreak hit.
“Those numbers are an unfortunate reflection of the reality we could have predicted,” Pecos told the Journal.
He said tribal members are at a higher risk from infectious disease because of factors including geographical isolation, limited health care access, high poverty levels and a prevalence of diabetes and other pre-existing conditions among Native Americans.
“That all really makes for a disastrous situation,” Pecos said. “It was a concern that we were voicing at the very front end of the pandemic.”
Since New Mexico’s first coronavirus case was reported March 11, there have been 36 deaths due to the virus across the state.
Five additional deaths were reported Tuesday – the same number as on Monday – and eight of the state’s last 10 reported deaths have occurred in San Juan County, which has a high Native American population.
The new state data released Tuesday does not include a breakdown of COVID-19 deaths by ethnicity, but it does provide – for the first time – county-by-county testing figures and age and gender details by county of confirmed cases.
Much of that data has been provided by other states in recent weeks as the coronavirus outbreak has swept across the nation.
Meanwhile, Lujan Grisham said during a national television news appearance on Sunday that social aspects of health – including poverty, hunger and lodging issues – have complicated state and tribal efforts to combat and treat the spread of COVID-19.
“In some of these areas, particularly in the Navajo Nation, you’re in a situation where you’ve got folks living without access to food and electricity,” Lujan Grisham said in response to a question from CNN’s Jake Tapper. “This creates unique challenges.”
The governor also said tribal leaders are working with state officials in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah on a regional strategy for slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
“It’s concerning,” she said, citing a large number of cases with underlying health issues like diabetes.
The additional state-level data unveiled Tuesday also shows women have been infected at a slightly higher rate than men in New Mexico – with females making up 51.8% of the state’s total confirmed cases.
In addition, the number of cases is largely similar among those ages 20 to 69, with lower infection rates for younger New Mexicans and those ages 70 and older.
However, most of the state’s deaths attributed to coronavirus have been elderly residents with underlying health issues.
In all, there are now 1,407 confirmed coronavirus cases statewide, after New Mexico health officials announced an additional 62 cases Tuesday.
More than half of those new confirmed cases were in the northwestern New Mexico counties of McKinley and San Juan, which have high Native American populations.
Statewide, there were 82 people hospitalized due to the coronavirus as of Tuesday.
A total of 340 individuals had been designated by the state Department of Health as having recovered from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
In response to the coronavirus outbreaks, the tribal governments of both Zia and San Felipe pueblos have issued stay-at-home orders, implemented curfews, directed residents to not leave the pueblo and barred outside visitors.
All tribally owned casinos have been closed around New Mexico, after Lujan Grisham urged tribal leaders to do so.
The state Indian Affairs Department has also issued a tribal response plan that recommends steps for affected Native American communities, including cleaning strategies and sanitary ways to take care of people who have tested positive for the disease.
But Pecos said the social distancing strategies, while necessary, have posed a challenge on tribal lands, because cultural traditions often call for large gatherings during times of loss.
“That kind of cuts at the very core of the covenants of pueblo culture,” he said in a Tuesday interview.
New Mexico tribal communities have also been hit hard by previous disease outbreaks, including the flu in 1918 that killed more than half the residents of at least one northern New Mexico pueblo.
While Native Americans have been disproportionately affected by the current coronavirus outbreak, other racial and ethnic groups have had smaller impacts, based on the state’s population.
New Mexico Hispanics made up 25.8% of the state’s total coronavirus cases, while Anglos represented 23.5% of the state’s cases.
The remaining 13% or so of the cases were either attributed to other ethnic groups or the individuals’ ethnicity was unknown.