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.