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.
Half of the 200 people who had died as of yesterday in New Mexico from COVID-19 were Native Americans, a jarring number for a population that makes up 11% of the state’s population.It’s another grim statistic for the state’s 23 tribes who have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic in New Mexico. Nearly 60% of people identified to date through testing as infected with the virus are indigenous. Data about those who’ve died, provided to New Mexico In Depth by the New Mexico Department of Health, came in advance of Monday’s daily update from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office. That update included eight additional deaths, pushing the state’s death total to 208, four of which occurred in hard-hit McKinley County, where Native Americans make up almost 80% of the population.
The 100 deaths attributed to Native Americans in New Mexico likely include Navajo people living in the state as well as Native Americans from the state’s more than 20 other tribes.
Meanwhile, deaths attributed to white people in New Mexico–30%–exceed the 14% of identified positive cases attributed to that group, but still fall below their representation in the population as a whole.
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.
New Mexico officials on Tuesday rolled out an ambitious plan to test for the new coronavirus in the state’s prisons. At a virtual news conference led by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, state Health Department Secretary Kathy Kunkel said all prison guards and staff — more than 1,800 people — would be tested by May 13. Officials plan to test 25% of the state’s 6,500-plus inmates by then as well, Kunkel said. Additionally, all newly arriving inmates will be tested and quarantined for 14 days, she said. The announcement marks a sharp turn for Lujan Grisham’s administration.
Antennas and a satellite dish search for a signal on top of a house in rural Vanderwagen, NM, where there is not high-speed fiber or cable internet. Marjorie Childress/New Mexico In Depth
When the University of New Mexico announced March 19 that all spring semester classes would move online and all students should move out of the dorms, 21-year-old communications major Hannah John went home. But she couldn’t stay long. Tall Ponderosa pines are the major architectural feature of Vanderwagen, population 1,700. Sandwiched between the Navajo Nation and Zuni Pueblo along New Mexico’s western border, it’s about half an hour away from Wingate High School, a Bureau of Indian Education school, where John’s parents teach.
The Santa Fe Indian School campus, photographed this fall, has been closed for the pandemic. Faith Rosetta/SFIS
For their first online assignment, five of Jennifer Guerin’s 15 students in library science submitted homework. She expected it. Library science is an elective at the Santa Fe Indian School and Guerin had encouraged her students to focus on core classes, but the low turnout signaled that a shift to online learning might not work. Even with Chromebooks or laptops sent home with students, teachers had noted about a third of their students weren’t participating in online sessions.
Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New MexicanGovernor Michelle Lujan Grisham delivers her weekly COVID19 press conference from the state capital. Six-thousand-five-hundred-fifty-eight people woke up Thursday morning behind bars in New Mexico’s 11 prisons, according to the state Department of Corrections. Just eight of them have been tested for the new coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease, COVID-19.
That’s a test rate of .0012%. The state employs about 1,800 people to supervise those inmates and oversee the lockups; it has ordered tests for 33 of them. The rate: 1.8%.
A chart from the April 28 report of the NM COVID-19 modeling group shows the disproportionate concentration of COVID-19 cases in the northwest part of New Mexico. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham took baby-steps to reopen New Mexico’s economy Thursday, allowing non-essential retailers to provide curbside and by-appointment services, opening golf courses and making state parks available for day use starting Friday.
But the new order sidesteps the state’s epicenter of COVID-19 — New Mexico’s northwest corner. Earlier in the day Thursday, the mayor of Gallup sent a letter pleading with the governor to declare a state of emergency in the city, which accounts for just 3.5% of New Mexico’s population but 30% of the state’s COVID-19 cases.
“Our community is unable to adequately address the outbreak without the imposition of certain restrictions necessary to regulate social distancing, public gatherings, sales of goods, and the use of public streets,” Mayor Jackie McKinney wrote. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez “fully supports the request and is hopeful that it will help to prevent Navajo people from traveling to the border town,” said a daily press release from his office.
Indeed, a New Mexico COVID-19 modeling report available on the Department of Health website, dated Tuesday, notes the “NW region has the highest growth rate; week-over-week improvement is leveling off indicating additional actions are critical.”
The new public order announcing some loosening of the economic shutdown across the state specifically excludes McKinley, San Juan and Cibola counties. And, the governor said Thursday those counties would likely see more restrictions. She did not give details, but said they were being worked on. During Thursday’s update Lujan Grisham announced a Navajo Nation Rapid Response Team, an acknowledgement of the severity of the situation.
Members of a New Mexico rapid response team focused on the Navajo Nation, listed in a slide during Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s April 30 press conference.
The Luna County Detention Center holds 590 inmates at maximum capacity. As of Wednesday morning, just over 200 people were locked inside the jail in Deming, about 30 miles north of the Mexican border. Shauna Smith, a 43-year-old mother who has been incarcerated there since October, said the inmate population has been steadily thinning since the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping across New Mexico in early March. The county of roughly 24,000 people has seen just 347 tests for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, with three positive results as of Wednesday, according to the state Health Department. Like so many other jails and prisons around the state, few of those tests were performed at the Luna County Detention Center — four inmates and three staff members, all of whom were negative.
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.