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NM lawmakers question IHS mask contract for Navajo hospitals

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Indian Health Services Director Michael Weahkee, second from left, visits with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, right, on Tuesday in Window Rock, Ariz. (Courtesy Navajo Nation Office of the President)

New Mexico’s congressional delegation is questioning Indian Health Services’ purchase of respiratory masks for Navajo area hospitals that do not meet FDA standards for health care workers.

The delegation joined four Arizona lawmakers on Wednesday to send a letter to IHS Director Rear Adm. Michael Weahkee about the purchase, first reported by ProPublica. Weahkee is visiting the reservation this week, and has toured IHS facilities in Shiprock and Crownpoint.

“As Tribes in New Mexico and Arizona continue to battle this deadly virus now and into the future, it is critical that IHS follows all federal acquisition procedures to ensure the facilities that serve Tribes receive quality materials and supplies they need to keep patients and personnel safe,” the lawmakers wrote.

ProPublica reported last week that Zach Fuentes LLC, operated by the former White House deputy chief of staff, had a $3 million contract to supply respiratory masks to IHS hospitals. The lawmakers questioned the procurement process, saying they were “particularly interested” to learn that the company that supplied the faulty masks was formed 11 days before securing the contract.

The Navajo Nation, meanwhile, will have another 57-hour weekend curfew starting Friday at 5 p.m. All businesses on the reservation will be required to close.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said the restrictions are necessary, even as New Mexico, Arizona and Utah begin to reopen.

“We cannot let down,” Nez said during a video update Thursday. “This is not the time to say the worst is behind us.”

The latest IHS surge plan shows that new COVID-19 hospitalizations, ICU admissions and ventilated patients in Navajo hospitals have steadily declined since April 26, ahead of previous projections.

The reservation has more than 4,900 COVID-19 cases and 159 deaths from the disease. Nez said the pandemic on the Navajo Nation and other tribal lands shows the need for fulfilment of federal treaty obligations.

“Here is the time that we all can come together and make sure that Congress has a better and more positive relationship with tribes throughout the country,” Nez said.

The reservation has tested more than 32,000 people, about 15.6% of the population, according to Navajo Department of Health data.

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