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Indian Health Service Doctor Details Heavy COVID-19 Impact On Navajo Nation


There are 574 federally recognized Native American tribes across the U.S., and while the numbers vary from state to state and tribe to tribe, it is becoming clear that Native Americans are being hit harder by the coronavirus than the overall population. How much harder and why and what might be done about this are questions for our next guest. Loretta Christensen is the Navajo area chief medical officer at Indian Health Service, which serves as the federal health program for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Dr. Christensen, welcome.

LORETTA CHRISTENSEN: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So give us a sense. What are the numbers in terms of number of cases, number of deaths in the Native American community versus the overall U.S. population?

CHRISTENSEN: Well, we have been hit very hard by the COVID virus. We have over 1,100 cases across Navajo Nation, and the current confirmed deaths are at 44. So it has been pretty profound.

KELLY: Why? Why does this look worse for Native Americans than for Americans overall?

CHRISTENSEN: Well, you know, we deal with health disparities which are very profound, which then leaves us with a very substantial vulnerable population. Normally, our people are much more prone to respiratory contagions. We struggle with the flu, pertussis still in this day. And certainly, this COVID has hit us hard because of that vulnerability. We also have multiple people in Navajo Nation with multiple medical problems, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, which leaves them extremely susceptible to respiratory illnesses. So it's really come to fruition here, that vulnerability in the number of cases we've had across the whole entire area.

KELLY: Yeah. Describe what the coronavirus layered on top of that looks like.

CHRISTENSEN: Well, it makes things, obviously, very serious and very critical for us. All the standard things that you would do for coronavirus in a preventative way is social distancing. And we have taught this all through this pandemic along with our partners at Navajo Nation. Our messages have been very unified and very strong. Please stay home. Don't go out. Socially distance. Be safe. But in essence, we're asking people without running water to wash their hands several times a day. We're asking people without the funds necessary to buy two weeks of food, stay home. Don't go out and shop. And then we're saying socially distance when a lot of our families, our multigenerations (ph), live in one small home.

So we're very challenged by - those disparities become more glaring because now we're asking them, please follow these directions so that we can keep you safe. And they - and sometimes they can't. They're having struggles with those things. That makes it very, very challenging. My provider staff deals with this all the time, and they're a fantastic bunch of doctors, nurses that work with our population. So they adapt frequently and do the very, very best they can to get the patients everything they need.

KELLY: I mean, I'm listening to you, and it's striking. You sound hopeful. You sound positive. You say you're getting what you need. And yet this is clearly a crisis situation nationally, and it's hitting your community harder than most. I mean, how are you wrestling with this every day?

CHRISTENSEN: Well, you know, we do work in this environment all the time. And it's kind of our philosophy that we don't really focus on what we don't have. We try to take what we have and do our very best with it. And that's been the really positive attitude of our staff. They just constantly adapt and innovate new ways to take care of our patients. And I'm hopeful the things we've done are effective and they'll help mitigate the possible surge that's coming and that we'll flatten our curve, so to speak. And I have a belief in the strength and resiliency - the Navajo people are very strong, and we're going to be with them trying to get through this.

KELLY: Dr. Christensen, thank you.

CHRISTENSEN: Well, thank you for having me.

KELLY: She is the Navajo area chief medical officer at Indian Health Service, which falls under the Department of Health and Human Services.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANK WALN SONG, "RUNAWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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