Pueblos confront pandemic with tough approach

Rick Romancito for Taos News

A roadblock has been set up at the northern end of Veterans Highway, now the only entrance to Taos Pueblo tribal lands.

The news from Indian Country regarding responses to the COVID-19 coronavirus emergency has been dire. However, decisive action by leadership at Taos and Picuris pueblos has, to date, kept tribal members relatively safe.

Amid the 17.5 million-acre Navajo Nation spanning the Four Corners region, the number of coronavirus cases jumped from 101 to 698 Saturday (April 11), largely as a result of increased testing. According to the Navajo Times, 24 people have died on the reservation from complications of the worldwide pandemic. "In New Mexico, McKinley County has 92 cases; San Juan, 97; Cibola, 11; and Socorro, 6," the Times reported.

The New Mexico pueblos of Zia, San Felipe, Isleta and Zuni have reported cases, with one fatality in Zuni. Taos County has 15 reported cases, but no deaths.

Taos Pueblo response

"The first community announcement with information regarding COVID-19 came out Feb. 27, 2020, at a variety of community events," according to the Taos Pueblo Emergency Management Team.

This was the day after the first case was detected in California with no clear source of exposure.

Meetings were then conducted March 5 and March 12 with tribal and nontribal health entities. (By March 6, President Trump signed an $8.3 billion emergency spending bill as global cases hit 100,000.) On March 13, the tribe's Emergency Management Team was established. Its first act was to develop a Public Health Emergency Declaration, which was ordered by tribal government on March 16.

Did tribal government have a contingency for a team such as this already in place?

Taos Pueblo updated its Emergency Preparedness plan in 2017. It provided the authority and the structure to mobilize an Emergency Management Team in the event of an emergency. The team is made up of various tribal program directors and specialty staff. The EMT follows the structure of FEMA's Incident Command System.

Can you describe the team and what its functions are?

The team is comprised of an incident commander, deputy incident commander and section chiefs in planning, logistics operations and finance. The team is responsible for facilitating a coordinated response to the current public health emergency.

The expressed goals of the current TPEMT are to protecting the health of Taos Pueblo community members, provide critical services for elder and youth Taos Pueblo community members, maintain continuous communication and education for tribal members, assure long-term sustainability of the tribe, support the wellness and continuity of the ICS team and create awareness of potential future related threats and preparedness for these situations.

All entry to tribal lands has been closed except for Veterans Highway. What other specific measures have been taken to protect the pueblo's citizens?

Tribal government and the ICS team ordered self-isolation of those tribal members who returned from other states starting in February, and those who went out of state after the travel ban was in effect both tribally and statewide. There were also several announcements on KTAO-FM 101.9 radio to tribal members in Tiwa and in English.

The pueblo remains closed to all nontribal members.

We mobilized a community mask-making project, providing materials and a pattern from Holy Cross Hospital, to provide masks for first responders and community members (ongoing project). Health and Community Services staff made posters that were posted in the community, which had positive messages and information on hand-washing, staying at home and other important information.

We have been working with state, national and nonprofit organizations to provide personal protective equipment for our first responders, including the tribal sheriffs. Lastly, we will be posting applications for food commodities on the TPEMT Facebook page very shortly, and will post other resources as they become available.

Are tribal members allowed free movement to and from tribal lands to adjoining areas?

Unless it is absolutely necessary, such as work, but to comply with the places of employment guidelines they are following to protect themselves. They are advised to follow the most current guidelines to shop alone and not in groups.

So far no fines for violation of quarantine or isolation have been imposed, but that is a part of the ongoing planning discussion, according to Taos Pueblo Lieutenant Gov. Antonio Mondragon in a video for tribal members.

How has the tribe been working with outside emergency services, such as police, fire and medical to get help to tribal members in the event they are needed?

We are working with town and county emergency services as we have before. Under certain circumstances the Taos Pueblo will work jointly should the need arise.

The team has also been working closely with the State Emergency Operations Center, Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Indian Affairs Department and Indian Health Services to provide necessary supplies and services to the community and tribal first responders.

It should also be emphasized that anyone experiencing an emergency should call 911.

How has the Taos-Picuris Indian Health Services Clinic been a part of the team's efforts?

The Taos Pueblo Emergency Management Team and IHS Incident Command staffs are in communication, as is the Tribal Public Health nurse. The Taos Picuris IHS Clinic provided fit testing for the N95 masks for Taos Pueblo law enforcement, tribal sheriffs, our public health nurse and community health representatives.

At this moment, have there been any tribal members identified as having the coronavirus?

None as of yet.

Does the team have a date to reopen tribal lands?

None as of yet.

The tribe has created a Facebook page for the Taos Pueblo Emergency Management Team that contains official announcements. There is also a website emergencymanagement.taospueblo.org on which are videos in English and the Tiwa language to inform tribal members along with official announcements.

Picuris Pueblo response

The following are remarks from Picuris Pueblo Gov. Craig Quanchello:

This past week we filed a declaration of major disaster, I believe on Monday (April 6). So, we imposed a curfew from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. for anybody who resides within our boundaries, the Picuris land grant. We impose fines for isolation, quarantine.

If you violate quarantine, it's a $4,000 fine. And we're requiring everybody to wear face masks and gloves for outside of their house. Failure to wear a face mask is $350, then you'll be placed in isolation until this thing passes over. If you violate isolation, it's $3,000. Home isolation.

Are tribal members allowed free movement to and from tribal lands?

We're restricting it. Any kids under 18, we're not allowing them to go unless it's a medical emergency, but we're not allowing tribal members to take their kids to the grocery [store] or casual [drives]. If they do leave the reservation and go into a hot spot they will have to go into home isolation and monitor their temperature and symptoms.

Have there been any tribal members that have so far tested positive?

No, not yet. We have had two tested to date but nobody has tested positive.

Does Picuris have a special emergency team?

Yes, we do. We have an emergency readiness plan that we did in 2007 or 2008 and it was in preparation for the H1N1 flu. We started one then and we're kind of following that. At least, we have something. It's not the greatest, but it's a baseline we can follow.

How long do you think tribal lands will be closed?

Until further notice, until I start seeing those numbers drop, of positive cases. That's the only indicator we have, until the line starts to flatten out and drop.

What sorts of emergency services do you have?

We don't have tribal police. We don't have a clinic (other than the Taos-Picuris Indian Health Clinic at Taos Pueblo). We don't have an ambulance service. We have a Wildland Fire Department. So, we're in a rural area, as it is, and not having these departments is hurting us now. We're subject to federal law.

We go through the Indian Health Service. We go through [Bureau of Indian Affairs] law enforcement, and they're not prepared for this either … The system is being cut every day and now we're seeing the effects of all those cuts. My people don't have a place to go for any critical care other than Holy Cross [in the town of Taos], just like everybody else. I should say, it takes this to make them open up their eyes, for people to die, you know? It's sad.

Is everybody getting enough food?

Yes, we've been very fortunate. As soon as we heard the news, prior to us closing our doors, we started preparation for storage of food and dry goods, nonperishable items. We have thermometers and face masks. We had everything on order and they're slowly starting to come in. So, we've been very fortunate that we took action right away.

Additional information on the federal Indian Health Service response can be found at ihs.gov/coronavirus/faqs-federal-response-in-indian-county/.

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