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California doctors to help treat Navajo virus patients

University of California San Francisco nurse Jamilah Dula, center, boards a flight in San Francisco. Dula is part of a team of 21 doctors and nurses who will assist health care workers treating COVID-19 patients on the Navajo Nation. (Courtesy of Noah Berger For UCSF)

A team of 14 nurses and seven doctors from the University of California San Francisco will work on the Navajo Nation for a month to help treat COVID-19 patients.

The team arrived in Albuquerque on Wednesday night. They are now assisting Indian Health Service staff at hospitals and care sites in Gallup, Shiprock and Chinle.

The Navajo Nation had more than 1,600 COVID-19 cases and 59 deaths as of Saturday.

Sriram Shamasunder, a medical doctor at UCSF and founder of the HEAL Initiative, told the Journal that Navajo leadership is doing a “fantastic job” during the crisis, but asked for more critical-care nurses.

“We don’t want to promote a narrative of Navajo as helpless and us as outsiders coming to save the day,” Shamasunder said. “We are here to augment and support rather than lead from the outside.”

Shamasunder, who has also worked in Haiti, Rwanda and Burundi, said the effort builds on a yearslong partnership between the reservation and the HEAL Initiative, which trains and mentors health care workers in disadvantaged rural areas. Dozens of Navajo and nontribal doctors and nurses work on the reservation as part of the program.

“We already know the community leaders and the medical and cultural context,” he said. “The surge in San Francisco never really came, so we saw this as an opportunity to offer our skills. These communities are hurting, and have been underfunded and understaffed for a long time.”

The team will fill critical care gaps to treat more patients at IHS hospitals instead of in Albuquerque. They will also help at isolation sites for COVID-19 patients.

In Gallup, the New Mexico Department of Health worked with reservation medical leadership to address COVID-19 outbreaks in local rehab facilities and homeless shelters.

The agencies now provide housing for those patients, who otherwise would not have had anywhere to isolate and prevent spread of the disease in border towns and on the reservation.

Earlier this month, UCSF sent a team to New York City to treat COVID-19 patients. Shamasunder said transitioning to another large, urban hospital is not a big leap. But the uniqueness of the sovereign Navajo Nation, which is vast and rural, can trip up even the most well-trained medical professional.

More than 70 people were interested in volunteering for the assignment. The team leaders emphasized the workers’ need to be flexible and follow the lead of local medical professionals.

“We approach this with a level of humility, of respect and sacredness for the Navajo people and the land,” Shamasunder said. “We are here to walk alongside them.”

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