Many have said COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, but the data shows this isn’t so. Race, ethnicity and income all are contributing to an unequal impact in which communities of color and native populations face a higher risk of both contracting and dying from the virus. These populations also report increased economic and mental health hardships compared to the white population.
Native Americans have an incidence of COVID-19 that is 3.5 times higher than non-Hispanic whites. And native children are testing positive at more than three times the rate of white children. In New Mexico, Native Americans make up a little more than 10 percent of the state’s population, yet account for more than 30 percent of all COVID-19 cases.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico (BCBS NM) faced a unique challenge in working not only to effectively treat those who became infected with COVID-19 and slow its spread to the larger community, but also to work within specific government policies and Native American cultural traditions to serve native health needs.
“This health crisis impacted us all, and while we want to protect all New Mexicans, it is clear some populations are more vulnerable than others,” said Elvia Provencio, senior director of government programs clinical operations at BCBS NM. “Our native populations are part of what makes the state so special, and we know we have the insight and ability to meet their unique needs and ensure we keep everyone healthy.”
There are 23 Indian tribes in New Mexico, each with its own government, traditions and culture. Tribal reservations are typically open only to native populations. They often are organized around multi-generational families living in homes with limited running water and electricity. The living arrangements add to the difficulty of preventing spread once the virus has infected the population.
What’s more, most reservations are in rural areas where safety net services can be inaccessible and limited in scope. Many residents are forced to travel great distances for food, cleaning supplies and other necessities.
BCBS NM worked with government and tribal leaders to help individuals and families slow the spread of the virus and prevent unnecessary exposure. The company works to ensure health workers, other service providers and community members have access to masks. It is also delivering wood for fire-burning stoves and cleaning supplies. Healthy foods, pet supplies and baby care items are also regularly delivered directly to the reservations to allow residents to stay close to home.
To address the challenge of many generations living in close quarters, BCBS NM has made a concerted effort to keep COVID-positive individuals from returning to their reservations while there was still potential to infect others by securing hotel rooms where they could recuperate. Rooms also are made available to those who may have been exposed, so individuals can quarantine off-reservation for up to 14 days.
BCBS NM customer service lines, with Navajo translators, help connect individuals with needed products and services.
“We are proud of our relationship with our native communities,” added Provencio. “We understand the unique challenges they face, but also the many assets they bring.”