'We will get through this': Doctor reflects on the impacts of COVID-19 in Indian Country

A close up of a needle being inserted in a man's arm near tattoo
Security guard Kim Kinslow receives his initial dose of the COVID-19 vaccination at the White Earth Health Center in the village of White Earth on Dec. 15.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

Nine months into the coronavirus pandemic, Indigenous Americans have the highest COVID-19 mortality rates nationwide.

a woman poses for a portrait
Dr. Mary Owen, director of the Center of American Indian and Minority Health and president of the Association of American Indian Physicians
Courtesy University of Minnesota

That's made this an especially difficult year for Dr. Mary Owen.

She leads the University of Minnesota Medical School's Center of American Indian and Minority Health in Duluth, and she's president of the Association of American Indian Physicians.

She knew, as the pandemic began, that tribal nations would be challenged.

The federal government has a treaty obligation to fund health care and education for tribes, but those programs have historically been underfunded. That’s contributed to health disparities and a significantly higher rate of chronic diseases among American Indians than in the general population.

A surge in COVID-19 cases this fall hit many tribal nations in Minnesota hard.

"You see the numbers and you see that we have the highest age-adjusted mortality rate, so you know what's happening,” Owen said. “But then when you start touching base even more closely, it's easy to think about COVID in the abstract, but when you start to bring it home, it's a little harder.”

The growing statistics are one thing, she said — but in tight-knit communities, knowing the people and the families behind those numbers is entirely another.

"Our communities are so small that one death impacts so many more people, because we're so interrelated and support one another so much," she said.

Owen worries that the impacts of COVID-19, which has taken tribal elders and younger people alike, will carry on well beyond the life of the disease itself.

"It's unbelievable how much this is going to impact our communities for a long time to come,” she said. “And things that we aren't even aware of that it's impacting.”

But Native people, she said, have always been resilient.

“We will get through this like we get through everything else,” she said. “H1N1 [influenza] did it to us, smallpox did it to us, we had termination, allocation, assimilation, boarding schools."

Owen said she sees evidence that the pandemic is finally drawing long-overdue attention to generations of under-funded medical care for Native Americans.

"I have hope that COVID-19 has highlighted inequities, and the fervor that we have seen from some of our youth in response and some people in our community in response to the inequities will be maintained,” she said.

“In my own school, I have seen the medical students come together in a way that they have never done before to say we want change now. So that gives me hope, probably more hope than anything else does — that they're not tired yet."

Looking back, looking ahead: As 2020 comes to a close, several MPR News reporters have been checking back in with people they met earlier in the pandemic — about how their lives have changed, and about what they're hopeful for in the new year.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

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