89.9 FM Live From The University Of New Mexico
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
A regional collaboration of public media stations that serve the Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

As COVID health emergency lifts, Native communities likely to feel pandemic’s impacts for decades

A silhouette of someone receiving a vaccine.
AP Images
A COVID-19 vaccine is administered

The COVID-19 public health emergency lifts today, and since it was declared more than three years ago, the pandemic has hit Native American communities particularly hard.

The numbers are astonishing: CDC data show that compared to white, non-Hispanic Americans, Indigenous people have been 2.5 times more likely to be hospitalized and 2 times more likely to die. Over the first two pandemic years, Native life expectancy plummeted by 6.5 years.

“Communities are going to be continuing to grapple with the consequences of this for decades to come, and even generations to come,” said Dr. Laura Hammitt, an epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins Center for Indigenous Health who served as the head of the Navajo Nation’s COVID testing coordinating team.

She said the tragic disparities have been chalked up to a number of factors, including high rates of diseases that raise the risks of COVID infections. But she also pointed to what she called the systemic racism seen in the quality of healthcare available.

“I think within the Indian Health Service and the tribal health organizations, those providers and clinic teams are incredibly dedicated and have done everything they can to take care of people in their communities who are coming in sick,” she said. “But those clinics are also understaffed and under-resourced. And that's been a chronic problem for decades.”

Still, Hammitt says tribal health care teams have been preparing for the ending of the public health emergency, and she’s optimistic that there will still be sufficient funding for free COVID vaccines and testing.

She also said that state and federal support for education, housing, water and other key services could help address the underlying causes of health inequities.

“These communities that have been hardest hit really deserve an equitable shot at recovery,” she added. "And that is going to require continued investment in ensuring not only that we address these root causes of health disparities, but also ensuring that there are resources to support and (treat) individuals with long COVID and the epidemic of mental health challenges that communities are facing right now.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.