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Native communities have been hit hard by COVID-19 — and fear for their survival

Native communities in the U.S. have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19, with higher rates of infection and death. The Navajo Nation has implemented a series of strict lockdown measures in an effort to protect its population, but health care facilities have still been overwhelmed. In fact, tribes across the country see the pandemic as representing an existential threat. Stephanie Sy reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As states continue to move toward reopening, today, the Navajo Nation emerged from a strict weekend lockdown and police-enforced curfew, its seventh so far.

    Native Americans have been experiencing disproportionately high rates of infection and death from COVID-19.

    In this report, part of our series Race Matters, Stephanie Sy explains that even smaller tribes consider the pandemic an existential threat.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Ground zero for COVID-19 cases in New Mexico is the town of Gallup on the edge of the Navajo Nation.

  • Kelly Manuelito:

    I'm like, well, we live in Gallup. It's not going to come here.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Navajo nurse Kelly Manuelito treated the first COVID-positive patient to arrive at Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services. She works in the intensive care unit.

  • Kelly Manuelito:

    A lot of Native families, there are at least five or six to eight to 10 people living in one household. And it's really disheartening to see that it can spread so easily.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The staff of the ICU was overwhelmed when they saw a spike in COVID patients in late April tied to an outbreak among the homeless population.

  • Kelly Manuelito:

    It's definitely scary. I don't know one single worker who is not scared to come up. We have been working extra hours, extra days, and it's just been — it's been really rough.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    She says she's been able to take a break in recent days. The New Mexico governor lifted a week-long lockdown after fewer cases were recently reported.

    But the toll has been devastating on Native peoples in New Mexico. They account for 50 percent of the state's COVID-19 deaths, even though they make up only 11 percent of the population.

  • Jourdan Bennett-Begaye:

    I grew up in the northwestern part of New Mexico.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, a reporter for Indian Country Today, spends hours a day compiling reports of Native American COVID cases and deaths. It's a stark spreadsheet that tells a sad, still unfolding story.

  • Jourdan Bennett-Begaye:

    There was a point where, one day, I saw — I counted there are 60 people in the database. That night, after recording like 10 deaths in one day, I broke down. I did cry, because then these are, you know, my relatives.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Relative has an expansive definition in Indian country.

    And on April 23, Valentina Blackhorse, a former Miss Western Navajo, was added to that list. Blackhorse lived in Kayenta, and her boyfriend, a correctional officer, had the virus. One day after she tested positive, she died at 28 years old.

  • Vanielle Blackhorse:

    I never thought she would get sick, because she kept telling us, you know, stay home, wash your hands, wear your mask.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Vanielle Blackhorse spoke to us a week after her big sister was laid to rest.

  • Vanielle Blackhorse:

    How a funeral should be, it wasn't like that. There was no chairs. There was no — my mom couldn't get comfort from her family. We had to stay in the vehicles until, you know, they covered her.

    I'm heartbroken. It seems like a part of me has been ripped away.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In an effort to save Native American lives, tribal leaders have taken strict measures, including curfews and roadblocks.

    And in Washington state, the Lummi Nation has been uniquely proactive in testing its 5,300 members.

  • Woman:

    That everyone stay in their own homes and avoid interaction with your family members.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Springing into action after the first case in the U.S. was announced at a locale one hour away from the reservation.

  • Cristina Toledo-Cornell:

    So, then we start putting orders everywhere that we could think of.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Dr. Cristina Toledo-Cornell is the public health director for the tribe. Besides ordering testing materials and medical equipment early on, they have been aggressively contact tracing.

  • Cristina Toledo-Cornell:

    So, to us, it was very important to find every single case, because, if we miss one or two, that could be catastrophic for a lot of people.

    And that allowed us to really be aggressive in terms of relaxing the testing criteria, then do as many tests as we could.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    As a result, they have had dozens of confirmed cases, but no deaths.

    Back in New Mexico, there are significant clusters of cases in the state's Pueblos. By one estimate, 11 percent of the Zia Reservation of only 646 members were infected. At that rate, leaders are concerned about the risk of extinction.

  • Governor Joseph Talachy:

    We have been through this before with the Spanish Flu back in the early 1900s. The Pueblo of Pojoaque was reduced to just a few individuals.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Joseph Talachy is governor of the Pueblo of Pojoaque.

  • Governor Joseph Talachy:

    Our history is passed down through our language and through our spoken stories. And so any loss of our tribal elders would be a loss to our history.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    He shut down the Pueblo early.

  • Governor Joseph Talachy:

    I knew that there was going to be consequences as well. You know people were going to be upset.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The Buffalo Thunder Casino Hotel is closed for business and instead being used to house COVID-19 patients from other area tribes. Casino closures since the pandemic are expected to directly affect basic services on tribal lands.

  • Governor Joseph Talachy:

    But it just takes a few mistakes to get this virus to peak back up, especially in Indian country.

  • Bryan Newland:

    An economy doesn't mean anything if you don't have people.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In Northern Michigan, Bryan Newland is the tribal chairperson of the Bay Mills Indian Community.

  • Bryan Newland:

    This pandemic's impact on our community has been almost entirely economic at this point.

    I would estimate that, right now, we have about two-thirds of our tribal employees out of work. And then our tribe has a pretty sizable commercial fishing industry that's really been hit hard.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Back on the Navajo Nation, Karen Schell has felt that economic hit too. She runs a shop that's been in the family since 1948 and has been closed for months.

  • Karen Schell:

    I have just hundreds and hundreds of Navajo people that sell to me.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Lost business for her means lost revenue for her local chapter house.

  • Karen Schell:

    Those moneys go to our community here. I'm not making anything. They're not getting anything.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But she says, just down the road from her shop, fellow Navajo have died.

  • Karen Schell:

    We know them by name. And we know people who are sick right now. So, I think everybody on the reservation knows somebody who is sick.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Nurse Kelly Manuelito, while taking care of the sick, has been struggling herself.

    I understand you're a mother, and have had to distance from your child?

  • Kelly Manuelito:

    I have.

    It's been the hardest thing to be away from her. Her name is Hayden. She is 5. For the past five years and nine months of her life, I have told her every day, come hug mommy, come kiss mommy.

    My mission as a nurse is, I am here to protect. And my job as a mother is to keep my daughter safe, to keep her surrounded by family and love.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Many will say it's that kinship that has helped Native peoples survive, throughout time and against all odds.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Phoenix.

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