Tohono O’odham Nation in Southern Arizona Keeping Covid-19 at Bay

Although the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona has been ravaged by Covid-19 — at one point serving as the world epicenter of infections — the Tohono O’odham Nation has not been hit as hard.

Image of the Tohono O’odham Nation, Hualapai Tribe, Havasupai Indian Tribe, and the Havasupai Indian Reservation. (Credit: EPA)

TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) — Carmen Barerra didn’t think she was all that sick when she went to the doctor in late January, suffering from a fever and weakness that had kept her mostly in bed for a week.

Barerra, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, an Arizona tribe of about 28,000, had her husband, Mark Ulmer, drive her to the doctor. She thought she would get an exam and be sent home to recover.

“I went in there thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to be OK,’ and the doctor says, ‘Do you want to be resuscitated?’” said Barrera, 64. The thought hadn’t even entered her mind.

She spent four nights in a Tucson hospital with pneumonia and still hasn’t fully recovered. Ulmer was also admitted for Covid-19 and was admitted for two nights. He is also still weak. On Barrera’s third night in the hospital, her heart rate dropped so low an alarm woke her up.

“I heard the alarm. I didn’t know it was coming from me,” she said.

She asked the nurse if she should dictate a will for her granddaughter. The next day, however, she went home.

Although the Navajo Nation in northeast Arizona has been ravaged by Covid-19 — at one point being the world epicenter of pandemic deaths — the Tohono O’odham Nation, which straddles the Arizona border with Mexico has been luckier.

Thanks to income from four casinos, including two near Tucson’s million residents and one in the Phoenix Valley surrounded by more than 4 million people, the tribe offers health care to all members. There are four clinics spread across the nation’s 11 districts.

The Tohono O’odham Nation tribal administration did not respond to several emails and phone calls seeking comment about Covid-19 on the reservation, but numbers published by the tribe offer a glimpse of how the pandemic hit.

As of Feb. 24 — the latest Internet update from Tohono O’odham Nation Health Care —  68 tribe members had died and 1,735 had been infected by Covid-19. Although the tribe’s incidence rate of 9,092 per 100,000 was lower than Arizona’s 11,295, the death rate of 4% was double the state’s, according to the tribe.

Thirteen percent of Covid-19 cases on the reservation required hospitalization while just 7% did statewide, the tribe reported.

The tribe is far ahead of the U.S. and Arizona on vaccinations, having vaccinated 6,376 of the roughly 10,000 reservation residents. The tribe’s health services arm announced this week that all O’odham adults are eligible and can get vaccines by dropping in at health clinics — no reservations required.

About 10,000 tribe members live on the reservation, a sprawling stretch of Sonoran Desert dotted with tiny villages. The nation stretches across 4,400 square miles — roughly the size of Connecticut — west of Tucson.

The O’odham is a younger population (38% are under 18) than surrounding Pima County (23%), and the population is declining, according to a tribal economic development report compiled by the Arizona Rural Policy Institute and Northern Arizona University.

For the past eight years, Mike Santos, 64, has been the treasurer for the Hikiwan District at the western edge of the reservation. Santos pointed to culture and experience as a reason some members didn’t take the pandemic as seriously as they should have.

When he was a child, if a family member got sick, they called a healer to come and chant and pray. Doctor visits were rare. Add to that the fear of non-Native health care, and you get resistance to medical care generally, especially non-Native, he said.

“Even now there are a lot of people who don’t see a reason to go to a doctor for anything,” Santos said.

Language has also been a problem. When one young tribe member fell ill last summer, he was told to quarantine. He spent the next two weeks hanging out with friends as usual. Other tribe members did the same, Santos said.

“They didn’t understand when they said ‘quarantine’ they had to stay home,” he said.

Other misunderstandings opened the door to potential spread. At one point, tribe members were telling each other that HIPPA — a federal law that requires health care providers to keep information private — didn’t allow people to tell anyone they had tested positive, he said.

Over the summer Covid-19 jumped from village to village on the reservation, hitting Santos’ Hikiwan community in July, when a woman died after several family members were infected. Spread among families is a problem on the reservation, where multi-generational households are common.

“Out here, the infected people can’t isolate,” Santos said.

One tribal administration fumble came early in the pandemic, when the tribe made a 50-mile shuttle bus ride from Sells to Tucson free. The goal was to ease costs for people who had lost income but still needed to get to Tucson. The change actually increased travel between the isolated small town and the city.

“The bus was shoulder to shoulder,” Santos said. The tribe has since limited the shuttle capacity.

Some elders have minimized the risk from the pandemic, taking the attitude that Europeans have been trying to wipe them out for centuries, and they’re still here, Santos said.

“But this is different,” he said.

Barrera was born in Ajo, Arizona, and moved onto the reservation when she was 6. Most of the village was comprised of three extended families — the sons and daughters of Barerra’s grandfather’s family.

“My family back in the day had a chicken farm, and they sold eggs, and they had cows so they would make cheese and butter and sell that,” Barrera said.

At 13, Barrera went to an Indian Residential School, a boarding school in Carson City, Nevada, where she graduated from high school in 1972. After that, she came back and worked as a library aid on the reservation. She has lived in Tucson since the late 1980s, she said.

Barerra and Santos are both fluent in O’odham. Because the language is already slowly dying, any acceleration of that process can have a dramatic impact. Each elder who dies takes a tiny piece of the language with them. Barrera worries about elders living in close quarters with other family.

“One relative was ill for a long time. It took her months to recover from Covid, with all those grandkids running around,” Barrera said.

She has watched the illness and death unfold via Facebook mostly, because she has visited family on the reservation only once in the past year. She estimates that about 20 friends, acquaintances or family members have died in the pandemic.

In recent weeks, Tohono police put up a roadblock in the tiny community of Big Fields, just outside Sells, both Barrera and Santos said. Last week the roadblock was gone.

Barrera was skeptical about the vaccine until she contracted the illness. She is frustrated by people who refuse to wear masks.

“I went to the store the other day, and I saw people just walking into the store with their kids with no masks. I sat in my car with my breathing apparatus. I had to breathe with that before I went in,” she said.

A lot of people just don’t seem to think it can happen to them, she said.

Barrera and Ulmer are eager to get vaccines, though Barrera was told to wait 90 days after her infection. Ulmer’s age group just became eligible.

Though deaths continue, the reality of the situation has hit. Public safety messages are getting out — signs about masks and social distancing are common on the reservation, Santos said.

“You don’t really see anybody out here without a mask on now,” he said. “There’s no easy path, there’s no easy way to deal with things we don’t know. Who knows how long we’ll have to deal with this?”

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