As the number of new COVID-19 cases in Nebraska declines, and the state starts to “open up” after months of restrictions on businesses and gatherings, the state’s Indian reservations remain coronavirus hotspots, with cases climbing in Thurston County, home to the Winnebago Indian Reservation and most of the Omaha Indian Reservation.
As of last week, Winnebago and Omaha cases added up to 95 of the county’s 110 total cases. That number may not immediately appear to be high. But, to compare, Nemaha County, which like Thurston County has a population of about 7,000, has reported just four confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Sadly, that infection rate for Natives is echoed, if not amplified across the country. In Wyoming, Natives have had 22% of the confirmed COVID-19 cases yet make up less than 3% of the state’s population.
According to a compilation by the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA, if Native tribes were counted as states, the five most infected states in the country would be tribes -- all with more than 2,000 cases per 100,000 population, far higher than that of New York, the most infected state.
The increase of reported cases in Nebraska is, in part, a result of increased testing and some Winnebago residents who work at meatpacking plants that have experienced COVID-19 outbreaks.
But it is also a reflection of the vulnerable population, with many at high risk because of diabetes and other underlying health conditions, often living in multi-generational households, which more easily spreads the virus.
The COVID-19 infection problem is further compounded by the pervasive poverty on the reservations, with many living without internet service, computers or phones, making it difficult for them to be reached and informed of the crisis.
Critically, the tribal health services in Nebraska and across the country have long been drastically underfunded.
“They are barely getting along in normal times, and the pandemic comes along and exacerbates an already overtaxed and underfunded health care system,’ Rear Adm. Michael Weahkee, the director of the Indian Health Service, told the New York Times. “We’re hobbling along.”
Congress has allocated some additional funding for the Indian Health Service. But much more is needed. To put that funding in perspective, prior to the coronavirus, the U.S. allocated $3,943 per person for care through the Indian Health Service. The Federal Bureau of Prisons spends $8,602 per person for health care.
The pandemic shutdown has devastated the reservation economy, with the closure of casinos adding to already high levels of unemployment. "Closing off the casinos is like killing off the buffalo," said Judi Gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Council on Indian Affairs.
To make matters worse, COVID-19 relief funding, from the federal CARES Act and the state, has been slow to reach the reservations. That must change immediately and additional funding for native health care should be provided by the state and the federal government.
Increased funding would be a small first step to assist the tribes in recovery. But more needs to be done, addressing housing insecurity and employment by both the state and federal governments, before the reservations can come back from the pandemic that continues to devastate the state’s longest existing and one of its most vulnerable populations.
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