MN Native communities coping, not conquering, COVID-19 outbreak

Percentages have been rounded. Figures in this chart were from April 28. (Graphic by MN Department of Health.)

By Lee Egerstrom

Quick responses to the coronavirus health threat to Native Americans in both tribal and urban Minnesota communities appear to be holding the spread of illness in check, but health officials still see Native communities as highly vulnerable.

“This isn’t over,” said Mike Goze, chief executive of the American Indian Community Development Corp. (AICDC) in Minneapolis. “We have a long way to go.”

Data released by health authorities in late April showed early medical emergencies declared by tribal and state officials, and precautionary steps recommended and taken by federal, state and local governments, slowed the spread of illness from the global coronavirus pandemic within Native communities.

Statewide, Minnesota Department of Health figures show American Indians account for one 1 percent of confirmed cases and 2 percent of deaths so far. That is statistically in line with population data; the most recent American Community Survey (Census Bureau) conducted a year ago put Minnesota’s Native population at 51,999, or 0.9 percent of the state’s total population.

Two percent of Minneapolis residents are identified as Native Americans in demographic studies. The city is also believed to have the third largest Native population among American cities.

Minneapolis had 401 confirmed cases and 53 deaths attributed to the two-month-old virus outbreak in Minnesota, according to the city’s COVID-19 Dashboard (see link below).
Less data is available for Minnesota’s 11 tribal communities although anecdotal information shows the presence of the virus in and around all their sites.

The Indian Health Service (IHS) released data on April 25 showing it had conducted 26,560 tests across the country at tribal and urban Indian organization facilities, of which 2,882 were found positive of the virus. The Bemidji Area Office of HIS, providing service and support for 34 federally-recognized tribes and four urban Indian health programs in Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, had 440 tests made of which 33 were positive.

This, data, like that from state and city sources, most likely understates the actual spread of the virus. Data are reported voluntarily to IHS by tribal and urban Indian organizations, the health service said on its website.

“Our problem is like everyone’s problem. We don’t have enough tests to know how bad this (COVID-19) has spread,” said Goze, whose AICDC organization is involved with several Native health, homelessness, housing and related services in the urban area.

On the same day (April 28) that Minnesota’s death toll from the virus topped 300 and statewide confirmed cases approached 4,200, Goze and AICDC were erecting tents and hygiene facilities for the homeless and hungry in the Phillips Neighborhood in south Minneapolis.

All Nations Indian Church was among hygiene sites created by county, city and partnering organizations to assist the homeless and others to stay healthy. But it was quickly “swamped,” Goze said.

The AICDC had property across the street, at 23rd St. and Bloomington Ave. So., available for an expanded hygiene center for people to take showers, use toilets, wash hands, get toothbrushes and toiletries, and access food and services.

All Nations Church makes a good fit with AICDC. The Rev. Marlene Whiterabbit Helgemo also heads the board of directors for AICDC.

They were anticipating electric service at the expanded site on April 29.

The day before, health officials reported 14 Minnesotans had died including 11 residents of Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs in Hennepin County. Especially troubling, 13 residents of a Minneapolis nursing home have died and that 223 of the state’s first 286 virus-related deaths occurred within long-term care facilities.

The homeless are often as vulnerable as people in long-term care facilities. They bunch together, share facilities when they can, and many have health conditions with weakened immune systems as well. Minnesota has an estimated 19,600 homeless people, both urban and rural, with a disproportionate number living in the Twin Cities.

Goze said actual data on who has the virus is hard to come by because of inadequate testing and record keeping. “We know we are vulnerable because we have elders in care centers, we have congregate dining and housing, we have people with (pre-existing or underlying) health conditions, and we have the homeless who are hard to protect,” he said.

The Guardian newspaper reported in an April 24 article that Native American virus data goes uncounted in some areas and where Indigenous people are merely counted as “other” in race and ethnicity data. This is also true among the Navajo in the American Southwest who are especially hit with rates of disease and death. If the Navajo Nation was a state, it would rank only behind New York and New Jersey for confirmed cases per 100,000 population.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that Native Americans have diabetes at three times the rates for other racial and ethnic groups, and have the highest rates of asthma, the newspaper said. And, it noted, the federal health system serving Native Americans was “chronically underfunded” before the pandemic.

Past Indigenous history has health and community leaders watchful and fearful. Bradley Shreve, writing in the April 14 issue of the Journal of American Indian Higher Education, cited past contagions of smallpox, typhus, cholera, measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria and influenza devastated entire Indigenous communities in the Americas into the 20th Century.

“Some scholars have estimated that since contact in 1492, these pathogens were responsible for the steepest population decline in world history, with up to 90 percent of Indigenous peoples in the Americas being eradicated in what can most accurately be described as a holocaust,” Shreve wrote.

That undoubtedly haunts public health and community leaders when there is no end to the COVID-19 threat in sight.

As a result, tribal nations were quick to declare emergencies by shutting down enterprises and hospitality industry facilities that attracted tourists and visitors. These emergency measures gave tribal leaders broad authority to protect the public. The Red Lake Nation, for instance, declared a “Medical Marshall Law” that went into effect on April 3 after a Red Lake resident tested positive of the virus.

Minneapolis and Hennepin County have taken steps to provide safer distancing, if not always safe distancing, for people at risk. For the homeless, for instance, Hennepin County commissioners approved an extra $4 million during the past month to move 200 people out of shelters and into hotel rooms to lessen the risk of the virus.

It previously moved 277 senior citizens and “medically fragile” people who were deemed high-risk or suspected of having the virus into hotels.

The city of Minneapolis, with the county and Downtown Improvement District (DID) and community partners, opened several handwashing and toilet facilities in areas where the homeless congregate. Among them were four new hygiene locations that include Bryant and Broadway Ave. N., Hope Church at 707 10th Ave. S., the Lake Street and Midtown LRT Station, and the All Nations Indian Church location cited above.

Meanwhile, when the worst happens, Takayla Lightfield at the Division of Indian Work in Minneapolis, reminds tribal leaders, relatives and friends the CDC has useful guidelines for funeral and burial practices. For attendees, it states, people should avoid contact with people who are sick, stay home and do not participate in burial or funeral practices if sick, and – like always – practice social distancing by staying at least six feet apart from other people.

• Daily Minnesota COVID-19 updates:
•The Minneapolis City Dashboard can be found at:
• The Journal of American Indian Higher Education:
• Minneapolis virus information can be found at: