/ Modified jul 15, 2020 5:24 p.m.

Tribal nations partner with Arizona National Guard for mass COVID-19 testing

This week's events will be in the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Cibecue and Whiteriver.

Tohono O'odham COVID Arizona National Guard service members at a COVID-19 drive-thru testing site in the Tohono O'odham Nation in Sells, Arizona, July 6, 2020.
Courtesy of the Arizona National Guard

Service members of the Arizona National Guard are partnering with the White Mountain Apache Tribe in the hopes of testing at least 1,000 tribal members for COVID-19.

Task Force Med is a group of air and army National Guard service members who have responded to the requests of tribal governments in Arizona for help during the COVID-19 pandemic. While in White Mountain Apache tribal lands, they'll help test people in Cibecue Wednesday and in Whiteriver Thursday. The team first responded to a request for help from the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe in early March and have had a steady presence in the area ever since. The Task Force Med team travelled down to the Tohono O'odham Nation in Sell, Arizona, July 6 for an testing event similar to the two within the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

Colonel Tom Leeper is the commander for Task Force Med. He's also the Arizona National Guard state surgeon. He said during their work with tribal communities they keep seeing the same needs.

"They essentially need more testing. They need more staff at their hospitals, and they need more PPE," Leeper said. "We can't get away from that anywhere in the state of Arizona, even on the nations."

Leeper said FEMA and out-of-state tribes are currently sending PPE to those within Arizona. He said the Arizona National Guard is going to be distributing gowns it just received to all 22 of Arizona's tribal nations, and it's also expecting another shipment of gowns, face shields, gloves and masks.

The White Mountain Apache Tribe had the highest number of cases per 100,000 people across U.S. tribal lands in early June, according to an analysis by the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA. The center sourced their data, which can be voluntarily sent in by anyone via a Google Form, from Indian Country Today. It reports as of July 13 there have been 13,291 positive cases and 555 total death in the Indian health system, which is federally required to provided members of federally-recognized tribes with health care on and off tribal lands.

White Mountain Apache Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood reported that on Monday 2,060 of its members have tested positive for the disease since April 1, while 27 people have died.

When the Arizona National Guard team partnered with the Tohono O'odham Nation on July 6 it administered 317 drive-through tests. Leeper said Chairman Ned Norris Jr. and Vice Chairwoman Wavalene Saunders said they may request the guard come back down for more mass testing events.

"They've done a lot of self-protection," Leeper said about the Tohono O'odham Nation. "I remarked that they've been doing better than Arizona as a whole — they've done multiple lockdowns. They've been been able to support their residents on the nation and off the nation with food and sometimes water when they don't have the ability to go out and get it because of the lockdown."

Tribal leadership reported July 6, the day of the event, there were 223 cases within tribal members, most of those with the disease live in Tucson. The government reported 11 members have died due to COVID-19 complications.

According to the Tohono O'odham COVID-19 report, cases started to rise in early June. Leeper said while the Task Force Med team was in Sells, he was told that increase in cases was due to a relaxation of health and safety policies done in the hope of re-opening. The government has since instated multiple executive orders concerning its stay-at-home order, curfew and order to wear face coverings in public.

"They're looking at wide-scale testing, so they can figure out, just how deeply COVID has penetrated into their nation, and then also, the population that lives off the reservation," Leeper said.

He said after these events he expects other Arizona tribes to request similar mass testing events on their lands.

"Once they hear of a successful operation or event in another tribe, that really gets the interest of several others," Leeper said.

The Tohono O'odham Nation did not respond for comment for this story.

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