Director of Indian Health Service Visits the Navajo Nation

May 29, 2020

Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee, the Director of Indian Health Service, and an enrolled member of the Zuni Tribe, visited the Navajo Nation this week to assess efforts to control the coronavirus.

On the Navajo Nation, the COVID curve is flattening. Efforts to trace the spread of the disease are working. But challenges remain. Federal native health officials are responding with more funding, as KSUT's Mark Duggan explains:

 

Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee, the Director of Indian Health Service, and an enrolled member of the Zuni Tribe, visited the Navajo Nation this week to assess efforts to control the coronavirus. In a press conference at the IHS Shiprock facility, he announced that his agency is allocating an additional $234 million in COVID-19 supplemental funding to the tribe.

Weahkee's visit coincided with the news that COVID-19 hospitalizations on the Navajo Nation peaked on April 24. IHS officials originally predicted the peak to happen in mid-May. The COVID curve is flattening on a reservation that recently had one of the highest positive case counts in the world. Measures such as social distancing, curfews, and masks seem to be working. And the virus testing rate on the Navajo Nation is now among the highest in the world, at 14.6 percent.

But Weahkee cautioned against becoming too complacent in the face of such numbers.

“We also want to make sure that it's not an indication for the public that everything's okay,” he said. “We need to continue the great measures that have been put in place.”

Dr. Christopher Percy joined Weahkee for the press conference and noted that the testing rate increase is partially attributable to family-wide testing. When one member of a household tests positive, health officials test the entire family, even the ones that aren't showing symptoms. That way, the family can plan for their needs.

His staff in Shiprock stays in contact with patients seven days a week. They also work with area churches and other organizations to get food to families in lockdown.

“They provide the food to us and our team will organize the delivery out to those families so they can maintain their isolation,” explained Percy.

Health services on the Navajo Nation have been stressed to the financial breaking point during the pandemic. The new round of IHS funding will go to alleviate some of the strain. Weahkee said that a conversation is underway in Washington about also funding much-needed infrastructure projects, such as water systems and broadband.

“We know that the Indian Health system of care has a lot of needs and has been historically underfunded,” he added.

 

With the outbreak of COVID-19 and the numerous and far-reaching impacts to our region, KSUT has mobilized a news team to provide coverage of both breaking news and developing stories related to the coronavirus.  Stay-tuned for weekly stories during Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered.  Stories will also be available on the KSUT website.