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Doctors Without Borders comes to NM to aid tribes

Two mask-wearing Zia Pueblo members man a checkpoint at the entrance of the pueblo just northwest of Rio Rancho last month. Zia Pueblo and San Felipe Pueblo, both in Sandoval County, have been hit with an outbreak of coronavirus and a team from Doctors Without Borders is working with them to stem the spread. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, has a long and storied history of sending teams of medical professionals to far-flung areas of the world struck by epidemics, natural disasters, violence and other calamities.

Now, the international medical humanitarian organization has come to New Mexico tribal communities as part of an operation to address the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.

Tribal communities across the state have been hard hit by the illness caused by the new coronavirus, and the New Mexico Department of Health reports about 56% of COVID-19 cases are Native American. Native Americans make up about 11% of the state’s total population.

While the Navajo Nation, in northwestern New Mexico, has received a lot of attention for the staggering spike in cases, pueblos around the state, including San Felipe and Zia pueblos, have also experienced outbreaks.

As of Thursday evening, the DOH reported about 127 cases of COVID-19 in the ZIP code that contains San Felipe Pueblo, about 20 miles north of Albuquerque off Interstate 25. The pueblo has about 2,700 residents, according to census data. The ZIP code containing Zia Pueblo, northwest of Rio Rancho, had 99 cases in a population of less than 1,000, according to the DOH. The Navajo Nation, located in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, reported 2,654 cases and 85 deaths as of Wednesday night. Their population is about 156,000 in the three states.

Nico D’Auterive, a spokesman for Doctors Without Borders, said a nine-person team of physicians, nurse-midwives, logisticians and a health promoter is now working in New Mexico and the Navajo Nation. He said they are assessing ways they can support organizations and health care providers in several pueblos throughout the state.

“Our team has been focusing on how infection prevention and control can be improved in various facilities and attempting to better understand the nuances of community and household transmission,” D’Auterive said.

Doctors Without Borders first began addressing COVID-19 in the United States in New York City in March by working with homeless populations, D’Auterive said, and have since moved on to a handful of other communities throughout the country. He said the last U.S.-based operation followed Hurricane Sandy, which struck the East Coast in 2012.

In New Mexico and the Navajo Nation, D’Auterive said they are still conducting assessments and it is too early to discuss any findings.

Daryl Candelaria, the tribal administrator of San Felipe Pueblo, said the pueblo had already taken decisive action in response to its outbreak and had partnered with Indian Health Services and Presbyterian Healthcare Services to conduct testing. They had also been working with the Pueblo of Pojoaque to isolate people who needed to be quarantined at the Buffalo Thunder Resort Casino. He said they are “cautiously optimistic” because right now they have 111 cases of people who have been classified as recovered.

Candelaria said the Doctors Without Borders team has helped sanitize tribal buildings and homes where families with COVID-19 live and are working on ways to get out training and messages to the community.

Candelaria said one of the biggest problems among Native communities, San Felipe Pueblo included, continues to be the way the virus has spread among relatives living in the same household.

“That is a testament to our culture because we don’t push out the young or the old, we’d rather keep them in the home to care for them,” Candelaria said. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t work with the current public health crisis that we’re going through. It’s hard to self-isolate when you have eight to 10 people living within a household.”

State Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, said after he heard about Doctors Without Borders coming to Zia and San Felipe pueblos, which are in his district, he wrote a letter to the governor urging her to set up an advisory council to help tribal communities.

Last week, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the creation of a Navajo Nation rapid response team, which will be made up of medical professionals, state officials and tribal leaders. Lente said he’s glad to see the rapid response team formed, and would like to see the same model applied to the pueblos and the Apache tribes.

“It’s been national news that the Navajo Nation spread and the death toll is rising at rates that are really alarming and I think attention needs to be brought there,” Lente said. “But at the same time attention needs to be brought to pueblos as well, especially in those two pueblos where cases have gotten out of hand.”

He said moving forward he hopes to get a handle on how the pueblos are responding and where they’re struggling and where they’re having successes.

“It seems to be that the pueblos have really worked hard to do things differently now and they have understood they are not immune to this virus,” Lente said. “That it is very much a reality within those communities that have it right now and so they have taken a step back and re-assessed how they can better plan to combat this virus.”

He said he hopes Doctors Without Borders can be a valuable asset in advising the state and tribal governments along the way.

“They had written letters to both the Zia Pueblo and the San Felipe Pueblo on their assessments of what they should be doing or could be doing differently or better,” Lente said. “So I included those to my letter to the governor as examples. From all accounts I see them now as a partner and I would hope they would want to continue to be a partner as we continue to move forward to try to beat this.”

This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

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