Biden’s free at-home COVID tests are out of reach for many Native Americans

A U.S. government initiative to send half a billion free COVID-19 tests to Americans will struggle to reach one of the communities hardest hit by the pandemic — Native Americans living on rural reservations.

The administration launched a website — COVIDTests.gov — on Jan. 19 that links to a U.S. Postal Service online order form where people can sign up for four free tests per household.

But experts say it’s unclear how the tests will reach families living in places like Vanderwagen, New Mexico, a rural community of about 2,000 citizens spread over 440 square kilometers in the Navajo Nation.

Trading post and convenience store in Vanderwegen, NM, on the Navajo Nation.

Most of the inhabitants live on unpaved roads with no names and in houses with no numbers. Residents who want to receive mail must rent a post office box, according to EJ John, a research analyst at Arizona State University’s American Indian Policy Institute and a Navajo Nation citizen who grew up in Vanderwagen.

“The post office closed a few years ago,” he said, explaining that the USPS has since set up a pair of clustered mailboxes just outside the local trading post. But not everyone can afford to pay the required six months’ rent at once, John said.

“You’ll see multiple names on one box,” he said. “A lot of people often end up sharing them.”

The map shows Vanderwagen, NM, an unincorporated community on the Navajo Nation.

The map shows Vanderwagen, NM, an unincorporated community on the Navajo Nation.

Residents of Vanderwagen, like other rural tribal communities across the United States, face other challenges in passing the tests.

“Anything that requires you to log into a website and enter an address, whether it’s shopping online or trying to sign up for car insurance, that’s a challenge,” John said.

Most Navajo homes are located away from the main road and lack electricity and running water. And while the White House has announced a toll-free number people can call to order kits, that’s not helping everyone.

FILE - This Navajo home is isolated in a small canyon east of Tuba City, Arizona.  Radio is often the only means of transmitting news and information to tribal members on rural reservations.

FILE – This Navajo home is isolated in a small canyon east of Tuba City, Arizona. Radio is often the only means of transmitting news and information to tribal members on rural reservations.

“Even where there’s cellphone coverage, you’re lucky to have phones that only allow talk and text,” John said. “Landline coverage is not as available as it used to be, due to rights of way issues and providers leaving the area.”

White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said last week that the administration is working to ensure testing kits reach communities where the need is greatest — areas plagued by poverty, substandard housing, a lack of transportation and inadequate medical care – all factors that put populations at higher risk for COVID-19.

From left, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, President Joe Biden, White House COVID Coordinator Jeff Zients, and Dr. Anthony Fauci meet with White House Governors remotely.

From left, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, President Joe Biden, White House COVID Coordinator Jeff Zients, and Dr. Anthony Fauci meet with White House Governors remotely.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control’s Social Vulnerability Index, Vanderwagen is one of the most vulnerable places in America.

VOA reached out to the Indian Health Service (IHS), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that provides health care to federally recognized Native American tribes and Alaska Natives at more than 160 facilities. .

“We have home testing kits that we distribute to tribal organizations and urban Indian organizations,” IHS public affairs director Jennifer Buschick told VOA. “We anticipated the current outbreak and our service supply center actually ordered many home test kits … well in advance.

“We also have community health nurses going to people’s homes with test kits,” she added. “Sometimes when we have community events we will make sure we have test kits there to distribute. Our service units decide the number of distributions per household. »

A Navajo Nation citizen who asked not to be identified told VOA via Facebook that test kits are currently not available at Gallup Indian Medical Center, the largest facility serving Navajos — including those in Vanderwagen. A call from the VOA to the center to corroborate his statement was referred to IHS headquarters in Washington.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez arrives for an event with First Lady Jill Biden, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez arrives for an event with First Lady Jill Biden, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said Friday he was in talks with congressional leaders seeking help in obtaining testing kits, masks and hand sanitizer.

“We appreciate the Biden-Harris administration’s proactive approach in providing free home testing kits, but we need more action to address the unique circumstances of tribal nations and families,” Nez said. .

He also thanked Arizona Congressman Tom O’Halleran, who on Friday sent a letter to Zients requesting these lifesaving supplies.

By mid-2021, the Navajo Nation appeared to have taken control of the outbreak.

Today, however, the Navajo Nation’s health department reports that cases are on the rise: as of January 28, it has confirmed a total of 48,977 COVID cases and 1,612 deaths.

The toll-free number for ordering test kits is 1-800-232-0233.

Nohemi M. Moore