State investigating hospital with coronavirus policy that profiled pregnant Native American mothers and separated them from newborns

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Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham delivers her weekly COVID19 press conference from the state capital.

This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. New Mexico In Depth is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. Sign up to receive ProPublica’s biggest stories as soon as they’re published. And sign up to receive New Mexico In Depth stories here.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced on Twitter Saturday that state officials would investigate allegations of racial profiling of pregnant Native American women at a top hospital in Albuquerque. 

Lujan Grisham was reacting to a story published Saturday by New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica revealing that Lovelace Women’s Hospital had a secret policy for screening Native American women for coronavirus based on their appearance and home ZIP code, according to several clinicians who work there. 

Described as racial profiling by medical ethicists, the policy resulted in some Native American women being separated from their newborns at birth as hospital staff waited for test results, according to the clinicians.

“These are significant, awful allegations and, if true, a disgusting and unforgivable violation of patient rights,” Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, wrote. “The state of New Mexico is investigating whether this constitutes a CMS violation and will unequivocally hold this hospital accountable.”

CMS, or the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, regulates hospitals to ensure that all patients have access to medical care.

State Auditor Brian S. Colón also weighed in, with a Facebook post commenting that Lovelace “has some additional explaining to do.”

A Lovelace spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a voice message and email Saturday. In previous statements, Lovelace acknowledged screening patients by geographic area, but it said that such practices followed guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was not immediately clear whether the policy described by clinicians remained in place on Saturday.

The CDC doesn’t mention geography in its COVID-19 guidelines for pregnant women. It specifies that pregnant patients should be treated as people under investigation for COVID-19 only if they exhibit symptoms or have had recent high-risk contact with COVID-19 patients. 

According to several Lovelace clinicians, when pregnant women showed up at the hospital who appeared to be Native American, staff members were instructed to compare the expectant mother’s home ZIP code against a list of Indian reservation ZIP codes maintained by the hospital, known informally as the “Pueblos List,” a reference to New Mexico’s Pueblo Indian tribes. If the pregnant woman’s ZIP code matched one on the list, she was designated as a “person under investigation” for COVID-19 and tested even if she did not have symptoms, the clinicians said.

Several Native American tribes in New Mexico have been hit hard by the coronavirus, recording some of the highest per capita rates of infection in the nation. But not all of the ZIP codes on the list are home to tribes with high prevalence of the disease. 

Lovelace did not use rapid COVID-19 tests, so it took up to three days for results to come back. During that time, the hospital separated some asymptomatic mothers from their newborns as part of an effort to prevent transmission of the virus from mother to child. Other Albuquerque hospitals are using rapid tests and do not separate Native American mothers from newborn children.

Such separations deprive infants of close, immediate contact with their mothers that doctors recommend.

“We had no knowledge of this practice happening,” Tripp Stelnicki, Lujan Grisham’s communications director, said Saturday.

The state Health Department has contacted CMS to determine how to proceed, Stelnicki said. 

“The intent is to find out what … is going on,” Stelnicki said. “And if indeed, if this has happened, it is extremely disturbing, and to rectify the position if there were CMS violations, those will be pursued.”

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