The rising number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the Navajo Nation sparked an overwhelming support from the U of U Health community and Indigenous partnerships—a joint effort to provide crucial supplies to the rural areas of the Navajo reservation in Utah.
The Navajo Nation has the highest infection rate of COVID-19 in the country. As of June 11, there have been 6,378 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the Navajo Nation and 298 deaths, according to the Navajo Department of Health.
Recognizing this, the University of Utah School of Medicine Office of Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (OHEDI) has partnered with the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake to secure essential medical supplies for the Utah Navajo Health Systems (UNHS).
Once the donation drive began, generous local donors in vehicles pulled into the donation site at the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake. Student volunteers from associated U of U Health colleges unloaded items of cleaning supplies, nonperishable food, toilet paper and hand sanitizers. In response to COVID-19 concerns, volunteers practiced safety precautions by wearing masks and gloves, sanitizing each item and physical distancing.
OHEDI provides multiple outreach programs to pre-K to 12th-grade students, undergraduates, graduates and medical students, reaching over 20,000 students each year.
“OHEDI’s goal is to provide educational programs and sustainable health partnerships that increase cultural awareness and programs promoting equity, diversity and inclusion,” said Donna Eldridge, OHEDI administrative program coordinator.
This year, OHEDI increased their outreach efforts to broaden and provide opportunities for American Indian and Alaska Native students to learn more about the field of health sciences and medicine. Recently, they have suspended their outreach operations in the community, but their advocacy of undeserved communities persists amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The donation drive was made possible through the collective support of partnerships OHEDI has established in the tribal communities and with the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake.
“This would not have been possible without OHEDI’s comprehensive efforts from building trusted relationships and establishing partnerships through our Indigenous STEM outreach programs to help during a crisis,” says Paloma Cariello, M.D., MPH, associate dean for OHEDI.
The donation from local Utahans of PPE supplies and nonperishable food filled up one 26-foot- long U-Haul moving truck, two 20-foot-long U-Haul moving trucks and one minivan for UNHS.
The donated items included face masks, hand sanitizers, hygiene items, water bottles, pet food, etc., and were delivered by Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake volunteers, who were an instrumental partner in the donation drive.
Cariello said there was an outpouring of support from the U of U Health community.
It was displayed with an abundance of student volunteers from various campus departments, such as the Utah Physician Assistant Program, first- and second-year medical students from the School of Medicine, the Department of Health Promotion and Education and U of U’s Native American Research Internship.
For some volunteers and staff, these efforts are especially personal.
“It’s especially important to me because my father lives on the Navajo reservation and is in his early 70s, a high-risk group,” said Eldgridge. “I heard about the rising confirmed cases on the Navajo Nation and how it can negatively affect our Navajo Elders. I wanted to do something about it and to get OHEDI involved.”
For volunteer coordinator TeMerae Blackwater, a Navajo and soon-to-be graduate student at the U of U School Medicine, motivation to help others starts with her identity.
“I’m a Navajo, cisgender woman of color,” said Blackwater. “I’m using my privileges to help in communities of Native and non-Native American.”
Many reservations are remote and with limited access to health care facilities. They often struggle with unemployment, poor infrastructure, food deserts and multi-generational households which has an adverse effect on indigenous health, according to Eldridge.
“We (Navajo tribe) suffer the highest rates of heart disease, diabetes and cancer,” said Eldridge. “This puts our population at a higher risk of severe complications and highlights the health disparities and inequities that exist in our communities.”
The fight to combat COVID-19 in the Navajo Nation is lengthy, but with a community coming together as they did for the PPE donation drive, it can provide much-needed support and offer hope to the most vulnerable communities.
“Right now, there is so much negative out there and it’s a challenging time for many of us,” said Eldridge. “This donation drive was a positive and collaborative effort in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic. It was all of us coming together to help those in need.”