Doctors Without Borders Rushes To Aid Navajo Nation In COVID-19 Battle

The nation's most populous reservation has a higher per capita coronavirus infection rate than any state.

A health team from Doctors Without Borders has been dispatched to the Navajo Nation to help the tribe’s struggle with a rate of coronavirus infections that’s higher than any state in America.

As of Sunday, the country’s most populous reservation had logged at least 100 deaths due to the coronavirus and 3,122 infections among its nearly 174,000 people. The reservation includes parts of Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.

Doctors Without Borders typically sends health teams to resource-strapped international conflict zones. But the need for health help is dire in Native American communities.

“Historically, the Navajo Nation has not received the same attention and resources as other communities in the U.S., and that has made it particularly difficult for them to respond to this unprecedented epidemic,” Jean Stowell, head of Doctors Without Borders’ U.S. COVID-19 response team, told CNN.

Native American communities in general have a “much higher risk for complications from COVID-19 and also from community spread because they don’t have access to the variety of things that make it possible to self-isolate,” Stowell told CBS News. “You can’t expect people to isolate if they have to drive 100 miles to get food and water.” 

An estimated 40% of homes in the Navajo Nation have running water, making hygiene recommendations to thwart COVID-19 extremely challenging. In addition, residents have limited health care resources, and critical patients have to be airlifted to hospitals off the reservation.

The Navajo people also have a high rate of diabetes and hypertension, making them particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. 

“I think it’s difficult for Americans to realize how big this country is and how the needs are so different in each place,” Stowell said. “The needs of the Native American community are challenging because they look so different than the needs elsewhere, so they require a pretty significant coordinated effort.”

The team from Doctors Without Borders includes two physicians, three nurses, two supply and organization coordinators, a water sanitation specialist, and a community health education expert. They’ll stay at least through the end of June, Stowell said.

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