UAII Reaction to COVID-19: What We’re Doing for Our Community
“We’re all two paychecks away from being homeless,” said UAII Community Health Outreach Worker Robin Cote (Sioux-Saulteaux Ojibwe). “Before COVID-19, I was in school and working. Losing that income and trying to figure out how to move forward, UAII has been the savior of my story.”
Cote is among 30 UAII Community Health Workers (CHWs) hired temporarily from within the UAII community to help our clients receive much-needed services during the COVID-19 pandemic. CHWs are working across multiple departments, including Workforce Development and Training, American Indian Clubhouse, and the American Indian Health Project, with a primary focus of connecting clients to urgent resources such as meals, personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning products, education about the pandemic, COVID-19 testing, and ensuring that clients are aware of the many wrap-around services provided through UAII, such as emergency housing and mental health resources.
Their job isn’t always easy…
“I’m trying to stay positive,” said UAII CHW Kimberly Frost (Navajo-Southern Ute). “But in the people that I visited, I could see it in their body language that their mental health is dwindling. This is expected during a pandemic, but I’ve noticed alcoholism, drug use, and even domestic violence – people are going through very tough times.”
The COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate and devastating harm to American Indian communities is devastating. For example, the Navajo Nation has the highest infection rate in the entire country, greater than that of the worst-hit state, New York; it is even greater than that of Wuhan at the height of the outbreak in China.
Native people make up only one-tenth of New Mexico’s population but more than 55 percent of its coronavirus cases; in Wyoming, AI/AN people are less than 3 percent of the state population but make up more than one-third of its cases.
What’s worse, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are showing that American Indians are at the highest risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes. Persisting racial inequity and historical trauma have contributed to disparities in health and socioeconomic factors between American Indian and other racial populations that have adversely affected Native communities.
American Indian adults are the most likely to be at higher risk of serious illness if infected with coronavirus — chiefly due to a higher prevalence of underlying health conditions and longstanding disparities in health care and other socio-economic factors. People in lower-income households are at the highest risk for complications.
Non-elderly adults at high risk of serious illness from coronavirus are 34 percent among American Indians and 27 percent among Blacks, compared to 21 percent of Whites. Asian adults are the least likely to be at higher risk of serious illness if infected (12%).
Limited access to health services and above-average rates of immunocompromising diseases increase the vulnerability of American Indian populations to the outbreak. In addition, many American Indians also face the brunt of the economic downturn as their businesses are closed during the pandemic, and jobs are lost.
Many CHWs are in a similar predicament, losing jobs and having to quickly shift priorities. “Prior to the pandemic, I left Wells Fargo and became an entrepreneur so that I could complete my education,” said Cheyennena Bedonie (Navajo-Blackfeet-Powhatan). “I was doing really well in my business. But when COVID hit, my business took a crash and I couldn’t pick it back up again. I wasn’t able to transition in enough time. I’m really sad about it.”
“I’m fearful for my health, and the health of my family and friends,” added Kristina. “I have financial fear. And fear for the general future. Fear for having a stable job and stable hours. All of these things affect me.”
Juay Roybal-Kastl (Shawnee-Creek) was working with California Native Vote Project prior to the pandemic doing outreach work. Then the pandemic hit. “We had a bunch of things on our calendar and I was so excited to go out and continue doing outreach,” she said. “Then this happened. I lost both of my jobs, and I was like a top spinning – now what? I don’t know what I’m going to do. But we’ve made it this far, and I trust that everything will be okay.”
“I was supposed to do an internship to prepare for my career in geology and cartography,” added Frost. “But now UAII is giving me a new experience going into the community and doing outreach. This work is giving me a purpose and a drive. After the pandemic, I would like to stay within the organization and find a job within UAII.”
Most CHWs are finding meaning in this challenging time. “The one word that I use for this pandemic is tradition,” said Shandiin Biiliilitso (Navajo). “Before, we weren’t focused on what is important. We weren’t focused on our culture. We were stuck in everyday life with the rush of L.A. – you’re trying to get to your job, go to school, and accomplish so much. But now, I’m focused on things that I couldn’t focus on before.”
“I’m able to spend more time with my children,” added Jessica. “I have a fifteen-year-old daughter and I’m glad she’s home with me. That way, I can influence her as best I can. It’s nice spending time with them and connect.”
As ‘ears on the ground for UAII,’ CHWs are hearing words of hope from our community members. “What I’m hearing is that the community cannot wait to see other people – their friends, their family,” said Shandiin. “I’ve connected to people I know from the pow-pows and they say they can’t wait to go to another pow-pow. I think it will be great when we can meet up again all together.”
Many CHWs have been sharing inspirational words of wisdom with community members as well as being a ‘listening ear’ to their challenges. “We are all warriors,” proclaimed Moriah. “We all have to stand straight with our heads up high. We can’t give up. And at the end of the day, it will be okay. And if it’s not okay, we still have to wait and keep looking forward in faith.”
“We as a people have been through some terrible things in the past,” added Kristina. “Through it all, I’m sure they thought, ‘What is the future going to look like?’ ‘Are we going to have a future?’ But we have to keep reminding ourselves that our relatives went through these things, and they came out of it. We’re a healing people. We’re resilient. We’ll get through it.”
For many Natives, the coronavirus outbreak is a reminder of the devastating losses that tribes suffered in the 1918 and 2009 flu pandemics, with mortality rates four to five times higher than in the U.S. overall. There is an element of historical trauma that has been triggered for many by this pandemic.
“Our job is really to be partners to the community,” said one CHW who preferred to remain anonymous. “Communities know how to answer the call, how to take care of our elders. It’s not our job to swoop in and take charge, but to respect that sovereign right and to support it in any way we can.”
The UAII CHWs will continue being a beacon of light for our community until the end of this month, providing valuable resources to those of us in need. Together with them, we look forward to a future where we can continue assisting our clients in making a complete recovery – physical, emotional, and spiritual – from the pandemic, helping to ensure that our community has the housing, employment, and medical resources that they require in order to live a healthy, productive life. Together, we will all get through this.
“We’re all a team,” added Desirey. “We’re all in this together. If any of you need to reach out for help, use us as a resource. We’re all working together.”
Recognizing a Few Extraordinary UAII Community Health Workers
Cheyennena Bedonie (Navajo-Blackfeet-Powhatan). Cheyennena resides in Carson, CA. She grew up working in the Native community and is currently a student at Cal State Fullerton. She will be graduating this semester.
Juay Roybal-Kastl (Shawnee-Creek). Juay settled in Los Angeles when she was 10-years-old and has been working in the Native community her entire life. She started doing community work with CNVP last year and is thrilled to be working with UAII as a CHW.
Desirey Chavez (Navajo and Mexican). Desirey lives in El Monte. She graduated from college this year and is delighted to be given an opportunity to work as a CHW with UAII.
Shandiin Biiliilitso (Navajo). Shandiin recently graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a bachelor’s degree in family and consumer sciences. She has been heavily involved in pow-wows her entire life and has worked with UAII numerous times in the past.
Jessica Alvarez (Tohono O’odham). Jessica lives in Covina and is originally from the Bay Area. She worked with the Native America Health Center in Oakland prior to coming to Los Angeles and is delighted to be assisting UAII in its community outreach work.
Flora Enriquez (Tewa). Flora lives in Carson, CA. This is her first experience doing community work and she is thrilled that she can add it to her many life experiences. She sees this position as a unique and valuable opportunity to reach out and help the community.
Robin Cote (Sioux-Saulteaux Ojibwe). Robin is originally from Saskatchewan, Canada. She has an 8-year military medical background as a hospital corpsman with the U.S. Navy and is currently studying creative industry studies with an emphasis on graphic design from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. She will be graduating with her B.A. next semester. Robin is thrilled to be doing community service with UAII.
Kimberly Frost (Navajo-Southern Ute). Kimberly was born and raised in Los Angeles, and previously worked for the AmeriCorps Hoopa Tribal CCC in Hoopa, California. She is currently a college student, honored to be doing community health outreach with UAII.
Kristina Fiore (Hoopa-Yurok). Kristina lives in San Gabriel. This is her first experience working in the Native community doing outreach, and she has learned an enormous amount. She especially loves connecting with other Native people in the Los Angeles area.
Mariah Smith (Seminole). Mariah lives in Gardena. She has been a preschool teacher for four years and is now an instructional aid. She just finished a Certified Nurse Assistant course, and also works as a Home Health Aid. Mariah feels blessed to be given an opportunity to work with UAII as a CHW.