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Town hall focuses on COVID-19 NM hotspots

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Conroy Chino, upper left, moderated a virtual town hall Sunday night focusing on the impact of COVID-19 on tribal communities. SOURCE: NMPBS

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The coronavirus outbreak has exacerbated long-standing challenges in Indian Country – lack of health care funding and broadband services, among them – as the pandemic has torn into the Navajo Nation and other tribal communities, officials said Sunday in a virtual town hall.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said the pandemic has highlighted the under-funding of the Indian Health Service and the difficulty tribal communities have securing aid, even after it’s been approved. Funding is often passed through state or other government agencies, he said, rather than sent directly to tribal communities.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez

“This is a public health emergency,” Nez said. “We need to get those dollars straight to our governments.”

He was one of more than a dozen people who participated in a virtual town hall Sunday night broadcast by New Mexico PBS and moderated by former state Labor Secretary Conroy Chino of Acoma Pueblo. State officials, tribal leaders and others appeared through a video link.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the state and the Indian Health Service plan to step up testing in New Mexico’s native communities to monitor the spread of the virus and guide countermeasures. She urged people to stay home and engage in social distancing to keep the virus out of their homes and communities.

“I have real hope for getting through this in a way that shows we are stronger and more resilient as a community, as a state, by working together,” Lujan Grisham said. “I don’t want people to be afraid.”

The PBS town hall comes as the coronavirus has hit Native American communities disproportionately hard:

* More than 38% of the New Mexicans who have tested positive are Native American. Just 11% of the state population is Native American.

* New Mexico’s highest infections rates are in McKinley, San Juan and Sandoval counties, where outbreaks have hit the Navajo Nation and two pueblos.

* Through Thursday, the infection rate in the Navajo Nation – 664 cases per 100,000 people – was more than eight times higher than New Mexico overall, where the rate was just 78 cases.

2 deaths, 47 more cases

New Mexico health officials said Sunday that two more people died amid the coronavirus outbreak, pushing the total to 55.

The deaths – adults with underlying health conditions – were a man in his 30s from Bernalillo County and a woman in her 80s from San Juan County. The woman had been a resident at Life Care Center of Farmington.

State officials said Sunday that testing had confirmed 47 additional cases of the virus, though they described that as only a partial total. The reporting from some laboratories was delayed, officials said, and will be included in future updates.

The state, in any case, has now confirmed 1,845 cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

State officials say 103 patients are now hospitalized with COVID-19, up from 92 yesterday. The Department of Health classifies 487 people as having recovered from the virus.

Closures take toll

Laguna Gov. Wilfred Herrera Jr. said pueblos in New Mexico voluntarily closed down casinos to protect public health, even at tremendous economic cost.

Laguna Gov. Wilfred Herrera Jr.

“This wasn’t an easy decision,” Herrera said. “These closures are very seriously impacting our ability to provide the level of services and programs” that communities need.

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo and a Democrat who represents the 1st Congressional District, said she is pushing for the next federal aid package to include money for broadband for Native American communities.

“We will get past it together,” she said of the virus.

Chino urged people to take heart as they wait for their communities to reopen. He said he is reflecting on the values of faith, friendship, compassion and hope.

“These are strange times,” Chino said.


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