Many Native Americans don’t live on reservations but frequently visit families there. When Native people test positive for the coronavirus, that information is rarely communicated back to the tribes.


American Indians and Alaskan natives are the most likely to die of the coronavirus in Midwest and northern Plains states, where COVID cases are surging. That is according to The COVID Tracking Project. Researchers are concerned that a lack of communication between state and local health care systems and tribes is hindering contact tracing. Emily Chen-Newton has more from Nebraska.

EMILY CHEN-NEWTON, BYLINE: Epidemiologist Talia Quandelacy says it’s common for Native Americans to have to travel long distances to get medical care. She is a member of the Zuni tribe.

TALIA QUANDELACY: I know when I was growing up, the closest, you know, large hospital was an hour away. And oftentimes if you’re kind of pushed farther out, then, you know, reporting those cases back to your tribe becomes even more of a challenge.

CHEN-NEWTON: Many tribes have coronavirus testing sites on their reservations, but most serious medical care for COVID happens elsewhere. In those settings, people are typically not asked which tribe or tribes they’re connected to. So if they test positive outside of a tribal or Indian health service clinic, there is no guarantee the information gets back to their reservation or tribe.

DESI RODRIGUEZ-LONEBEAR: Nothing is guaranteed to Indians in this country. Everything has to be fought for. We are born fighting, and we die fighting. And that includes the fight for data.

CHEN-NEWTON: Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear is a researcher and director of the Data Warriors Lab. She says tribes need to know if people who might be traveling to the reservation have tested positive. That includes the more than 70% of Native Americans who don’t live on reservations but may visit family or friends who do. And there’s also no standard process for states to share contact tracing data across state lines even though many reservations span state borders. Rebecca Mesteth from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota recently lost a friend to the virus.

REBECCA MESTETH: Oh, my goodness. There’s a lot of people that are just turning into stars. That’s what they’re doing – looking down on us.

CHEN-NEWTON: Her friend had connections to tribes in two different states, and it’s unclear whether any contact tracing happened when he tested positive. Authorities on the Pine Ridge Reservation have reached out to the closest health department over the border in Nebraska about making contact tracing easier, but there’s no nationwide policy requiring this.

For NPR News, I’m Emily Chen-Newton in Omaha.

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