Indian communities should see better flow of coronavirus aid, Democrats say
Two Arizona Democrats in Congress said Tuesday they were cautiously optimistic that Native Americans would see more timely and consistent aid in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Even so, Reps. Raúl Grijalva and Ruben Gallego, both members of the House Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight of tribes, urged more aid for Indian communities in future stimulus packages making their way through Congress.
Senior officials with Indian Health Services suggested there was now an understanding on how they would supply millions in aid, something that has moved painfully slow in the past, said Grijalva, who chairs the committee.
"There's been a historic pattern of belated response, and you don't want this to happen as everybody is gearing up to deal with this crisis," he said. "We're not only talking about the reservation. We're talking about 60% of native people are in urban areas across this country."
Gallego said he was "encouraged" by the action plans he heard.
"I urge them to continue to improve the process for meeting the urgent supply needs of Indian Country and to plan for the future as this pandemic worsens,” said Gallego, who chairs the Indigenous Peoples subcommittee. “Indian Health Services, Tribal, and urban Indian health facilities serve some of our most vulnerable populations, but are among the most under-resourced in the country. That can have deadly results during a public health crisis like the one we are facing now."
IHS officials said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will take the lead in distributing the $40 million that was approved in the initial congressional response bill. That money has been bottled up for several weeks and drew a letter last week from two dozen House members, including Grijalva, Gallego and two other Arizona Democrats.
Reps. Tom O'Halleran and Greg Stanton, both Arizona Democrats, had signed onto the letter last week urging faster responses, more details and more funding for the tribes.
IHS plans to finish consulting this week on how to distribute $64 million that was directed to that agency in the second coronavirus aid package.
At the same time, the Federal Emergency Management Agency plans to establish field hospitals and other facilities to administer care where it is needed. It was unclear Tuesday, however, where those sites will be and how those decisions will be made.
Indigenous communities are disproportionately impacted by health conditions that the CDC identified as an increased risk for a more serious COVID-19 illness, according to the National Indian Health Board.
The Navajo Nation reports having 29 confirmed cases. It was supposed to receive a second shipment of personal protective equipment from the Strategic National Stockpile by Tuesday. The shipments include masks, gowns, gloves and other materials to protect medical personnel.
Apart from the public health problems, tribal areas are suffering economically. Casinos and other key sources of their economy have shut down during the crisis.
IHS officials acknowledged their agency does not have the medical personnel or infrastructure to use additional ventilators and other needed equipment.
For those patients who need more intensive care, they will be sent to nearby non-IHS health facilities, they said.
The House committee has set up an online resource center for more information. To access that, go to naturalresources.house.gov/coronavirus-resources.