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. ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Federal regulators are ramping up scrutiny of a prominent women’s hospital here after clinicians’ allegations that Native Americans had been racially profiled for extra COVID-19 screening, leading to the temporary separation of some mothers from their newborns. The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will refer findings from state investigators about a violation of patient rights at Lovelace Women’s Hospital to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights, state officials said. The state Department of Health declined to specify details of the violations it had found.
While Navajo people represent the worst hit by COVID-19 in absolute numbers — Navajos represent 45% of all New Mexico’s positive cases – two Pueblo communities are being hit harder, by percentage of their population, according to data provided by state health officials.
About 11% of Zia Pueblo and 4% of San Felipe members have contracted the virus compared to about 2% of Navajo Nation members who live in New Mexico. The New Mexico Department of Health provided New Mexico In Depth a detailed breakdown of the number of positive cases by tribal affiliation through Monday. Those numbers show that the great majority of tribes in the state have cases of COVID-19. The New Mexico Department of Health provided this chart to New Mexico In Depth on Monday, May 11, showing the tribal affiliation of Native American people in New Mexico who have contracted COVID-19 through Monday. Navajo people represented 2,194 of the state’s 5,069 cases on Monday. Reported separately were non-contiguous Navajo chapters.
The BLM Gila District’s Safford Hand Crew works a burnout operation during the 2017 Frye Fire, Coronado National Forest, AZ. BLM/Kress Sanders. One morning in June 2017, while fighting the Frye Fire in southern Arizona, firefighters began visiting the on-site paramedic complaining of body aches, sore throats, fever, and fatigue. The paramedic diagnosed them with strep throat, a bacterial infection that can pass person to person or through food or water, and sent them to the regional medical center.
Then another crew showed up with the same symptoms. And then, a third. Medical staff estimated nearly 300 people might have been exposed.
A toddler in his father’s lap struggled to keep his arm still while Amber Awelagte took his blood pressure.
“Stay still or it will get tighter,” she told the boy. Her calm demeanor seemed to soothe the boy as she finished up then sent him to get tested for COVID-19. In many ways it was a typical day for Awelagte, the lead medical assistant for the Homeless Outreach Program (HOP) at First Nations Community HealthSource, a health center with several clinics in Albuquerque serving the city’s large Native American population. Awelagte provides health services targeting urban Indigenous people in Albuquerque experiencing homelessness.
But unlike most days, on Wednesday First Nations offered testing to their unsheltered clients for the new coronavirus, even if they had no symptoms.
“It is kind of scary to think about it, I don’t want none of my patients getting sick and it’s sad. What is going on in the other Native communities is really bad,” she said. “I just want to try and help and slow it down over here.”
It’s no secret that New Mexico’s tribes are severely impacted by COVID-19.
Statewide, Native Americans account for 56% of those who’ve tested positive for the virus, while making up just 11% of the state population.
Less than two weeks before the first COVID-19 cases showed up in New Mexico, 22-year-old Sevía Gonzales went looking for a therapist to cope with the effects of an unhealthy relationship she recently ended.
Before she could make an appointment for a face-to-face session, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a stay at home order, thrusting Gonzales “…into an equally unbelievable situation.”
She looked for therapists offering remote services covered by her insurance and found a few practices, but each had long waitlists. “The system is just so overwhelmed it’s not even worth it to try to get an appointment at this point,” she said.
Sevía Gonzales. In an effort to continue serving clients during the pandemic, many therapists and counselors across New Mexico have shifted to therapy online or over the phone.
It’s a solution, but one that fundamentally changes the way therapists normally interact with clients, those in the industry say. Usually, therapy is done in the same room sitting face to face, a more intimate setting where therapists not only listen to what a client is saying but can pick up on nonverbal cues.
“It’s better than nothing,” said Patsy Romero, CEO of Santa Maria El Mirador, an adult behavior and intellectual disability care center in Santa Fe. But online or over the phone therapy doesn’t replace face to face treatment, she said.
Clients “express fear that the phones are not secure, or they’re not as forthcoming with how they’re really feeling,” Romero said, adding that body language is sometimes more important in therapeutic treatment than verbal communication.
Face to face processes are much more effective than online therapy, she said.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last week took a step toward releasing prisoners to blunt the threat of an outbreak of the new coronavirus in New Mexico’s 11 prisons. The first-term, Democratic governor signed a three-page executive order directing her Corrections Department secretary to release nonviolent inmates who have 30 days or less on their sentences and meet other criteria.
But more than a week later, just 14 of the state’s 6,600 inmates had been freed, according to the department, and it is not clear how many others have been identified for release.
New Mexico In Depth, meanwhile, has unearthed an annual survey identifying hundreds of nonviolent inmates — many serving time for drug possession — who could be released during the course of a year. In a six-page annual report from the New Mexico Sentencing Commission, the state’s non-partisan, criminal justice data clearinghouse and policy advising hub, authors wrote that 294 people behind bars in the state’s prisons on June 30, 2019, could be released between Oct. 1, 2019 and Sept. 30 of this year.
Zia Pueblo erected barricades and a checkpoint at the entrance to their community. (Trip Jennings/New Mexico In Depth)
Native Americans make up almost 37% of the positive COVID-19 cases in New Mexico, more than three times their representation in the state’s population. That’s according to a new data dashboard the state Department of Health unveiled today.
Native Americans represent around 11% of the state’s 2 million residents. In comparison, Anglos, who make up 37 percent of New Mexico’s population, represent just under 24% of the state’s positive cases. And Hispanics, 49% of the population, represent just 27% of the positive cases.
Also disproportionately affected, but by a much smaller margin, are African Americans, who make up 2.6% of the statewide population, but 3.1% of COVID-19 cases.
An inmate at the Santa Fe County jail has tested positive for the new coronavirus, marking the second person behind bars in New Mexico with a confirmed case of the respiratory illness. A Santa Fe County spokeswoman said Monday that the man had come into contact with Jennifer Burrill, a Santa Fe-based public defender who contracted COVID-19 and tested positive last month. But Burrill disputed that claim in an interview later Monday evening. On Tuesday, County Manager Katherine Miller said officials don’t know how the man contracted the virus. His name had been on an internal county schedule to meet with a public defender on March 11, she said, prompting the jail to test him “out of an abundance of caution” on March 28.
Editor’s note: Shortly after we posted this analysis, on April 12, New Mexico updated its positive case count to 1,245, which would make this percentage 29%. We will update this again when the Navajo Nation updates its case count, later today or tomorrow. This percentage will most likely fluctuate every day but is, at this point, still nearly three times the percentage of the Native American population in New Mexico. At least 31% of New Mexicans who’ve contracted COVID-19 are Native American, according to New Mexico In Depth calculations from publicly available data. That’s almost three times their percentage of the state population as a whole.
The governor’s office said Wednesday the state of New Mexico is helping Pueblo tribes erect roadblocks to keep non-tribal members off reservations, as outbreaks of COVID-19 have begun to spread through at least three of the communities — and expectations are for the virus to impact others. New Mexico is home to 19 Pueblo tribes, with populations ranging from a couple hundred to 10,000 people.
The governor will “go to any length to keep these areas closed if that’s what needs to be done. The state is exploring all mechanisms,” Nora Sackett wrote in an email today. Sackett is Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s press secretary. Yesterday, the office of Lujan Grisham confirmed 31 cases in Zia Pueblo and 52 cases in San Felipe Pueblo, both in Sandoval County.
Editor’s note: Less then 24 hours after this report, the New Mexico governor’s office confirmed an outbreak on Zia Pueblo, with 31 positive cases, plus an outbreak on San Felipe Pueblo, with 52 cases. And Zuni Pueblo Governor Val Panteah confirmed 15 cases and one death on Zuni. Eleven members of Zia Pueblo in Sandoval County have tested positive for COVID-19, New Mexico In Depth has learned.
“As of today April 5th, the Pueblo of Zia has confirmed 11 Zia Tribal Members, potentially 20, infected by COVID-19(Coronavirus),” Acting Governor Floyd Toribio wrote Sunday in a memo to tribal members.
The pueblo, about 40 miles north of Albuquerque, has fewer than 1,000 members, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, making Zia one of the smallest pueblos in New Mexico.
“If this statement does not make you realize how real and close to home this truly is, then we don’t know what will. We are a small, close-knit community with strong family connections,” Toribio said in the memo.
The nature of the fast-spreading virus put tribal and state officials on alert Monday in a state that is home to 19 Pueblos, three Apache tribes, and a portion of the Navajo Nation.
“We are endangered communities and one person lost to the virus takes a toll on the entire community,” said J. Michael Chavarria, Governor of Santa Clara Pueblo and Chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, in an email. Many households in New Mexico’s tribal communities include multiple generations, with five or more family members living under the same roof, tribal officials said.