Longstanding issues put Native American communities at high COVID-19 risk

Native American tribes struggle with pandemic
Native American tribes struggle with pandemic... 04:53

Longstanding issues such as overcrowded housing and inadequate health care within Native American communities make them one of the most at-risk groups as the coronavirus pandemic ravages the U.S. Although $10 billion from the federal CARES Act has been set aside for direct finding to tribes and federal Native American programs, a new fight has emerged over how the federal government should distribute the money.

"We're worried that the money won't get right to the tribes," Kevin Allis, CEO of the National Congress of American Indians, told "CBS This Morning" co-host Michelle Miller.

With limited resources, tribal leaders are improvising ways to stop the virus' spread. The Navajo Nation has imposed strict curfews, requiring people to stay home or face arrest. Other tribes have set up physical road blocks to keep outsiders from potentially infecting people on the reservation.

Allis said that despite the best efforts of tribal leaders, the circumstances in which Native American communities exist already predispose them to risks.

"All the dominoes are in place to fall in a very coordinated fashion, if we don't get the attention we need, we don't get the resources we need. That's why this relief funding is so important," he said. 

Allis said federal funding meant to go toward housing for indigenous communities has been frozen for decades. In addition to being a violation of old treaties, he now fears it is aiding the spread of the virus. 

"The overcrowded home situation is at least 16 times the national average," he said. "It's a tinderbox for this COVID-19 situation." 

Some reservations have many family members crowded into a household to make ends meet. Zena Argon has seven family members living at her house, making social distancing difficult.

"There's a lot of families that are having to live together just for the necessity of paying bills, make the car payments," she said. 

Terry Roberts, purchasing manager on Wyoming's Wind River reservation and a member of the Shoshone tribe, confirmed that Argon's story was not out of the ordinary.

"I know some of the affected houses out here and east of me- there are 13, 14 people that live in a house. Of course they are going to get infected," he said.

Dr. Paul Ebbert and his medical team set up a testing site at Wind River, testing people at a higher rate than all of Wyoming. However, poverty issues that have persisted for decades are critical roadblocks. 

"We had a carload of six people coming out here to be tested with possible exposure, but none of them had phones," he said.

Native American communities, which largely do not collect taxes, are also dealing with the economic impact of the crisis. Lockdowns have forced casinos, providing valuable jobs and revenue where there otherwise are none, to close.