COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force Talks Vision, Recommendations and Trauma with NIHB
WASHINGTON, DC—October 8, 2021—National Indian Health Board (NIHB) CEO Stacy A. Bohlen sat down with Marcella Nunez-Smith, MD, Chairman of the Presidential COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force and Victor Joseph (Native Village of Tanana) former Chairman of the Tanana Chiefs and national leader and advocate for AI/AN health, who represents the Tribal voice on the Task Force. COVID-19 hit Indian Country harder than any other group in America and the health inequities that persist in Indian Country were largely to blame. “The work of the Task Force is to provide specific recommendations to the President of the United States for mitigating inequities caused or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and for preventing such inequities in the future. So, it’s work is important to Tribal Nations,” said William “Bill” Smith, Imeyak Tribal leader and NIHB Chairman.
“At NIHB we see that health equity must address a broad spectrum of issues and it carries within it the opportunity to achieve full health potential,” said NIHB CEO Stacy A. Bohlen, a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Band of Chippewa Indians. “Potential for investment in clinical and public health infrastructure, creating the conditions for healthy Native communities – are just some of the promises contained in health equity.”
On the first day of office, President Joe Biden established the Presidential COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force that was charged with building the strategy to fight the virus across all communities for all people in a fair and equitable way. Dr. Macella Nunez-Smith, a Yale professor of medicine and public health, was selected as Senior Advisor to the White House COVID-19 Response Team and Chair of the Presidential COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force. To represent the American Indian and Alaska Native population, NIHB advanced the name of former chairman of the Tanana Chiefs Conference Victor Joseph who is a long-time Tribal health advocate and specialist on the water and sanitation conditions in Alaska Native villages and Tribal reservations.
“I am so grateful to Mr. Joseph for his patience with so many of us on the Task Force who are coming to the dark realities of this country. We sought counsel from Victor, to hear and understand, and say how can we set our work in a way that’s transformative for all of us,” said Dr. Nunez-Smith. “The vision and work of the Task Force is shared. Our group is so united and committed to the vision and mission. They are tireless, passionate and are deep change makers in a collaborative way. In seven months, we’ve had seven meetings and finalized over 300 recommendations for the President. A large part of that work is accountability too. We know our work has to lead to action.”
Joseph said it was important to him that Tribal health priorities remained consistent across Indian Country and NIHB played an instrumental role in outlining an agenda for the Administration as well as for federal agencies and Congress.
“We had an important group of people working on these issues and it wasn’t always an easy discussion, and as the only Tribal member, I had a lot of concerns. I wanted to maintain three things: keeping a strong Tribal voice on the Task Force, sharing priorities consistent across Indian Country, and that messaging for all communities was done in a collaborative way,” said Joseph. “The priorities were shifting over time though. At first it was testing and PPE then vaccination. It was important for us to get the right information out so people could make informed decisions about their health and wellbeing.”
Following Mr. Joseph’s statement, Dr. Nunez-Smith expressed, “It’s not okay to always know and come to accept who is going to get harmed first, who is going to get harmed worse, that’s just the way of being, that’s just the status quo. It’s not okay.”
One issue that Mr. Joseph shared with the Task Force as a direct link to health disparities among American Indians and Alaska Natives – generational and historical trauma. Isolation and abrupt changes brought on by the pandemic caused a rise in substance abuse and increase in behavioral and mental health issues.
“There isn’t one American Indian or Alaska Native who hasn’t been impacted by residential or boarding schools or alcoholism. The beginning of the healing process for this country is to admit they did wrong which means the federal government living up to its trust responsibility and providing funding for mental, behavioral, and substance abuse services especially during the pandemic. Our people need to have equal access to care and not be subjected to the stigma that so many are. We still know the stigma around Native people and alcoholism exists and some providers still carry that prejudice. These are all examples I shared with the Task Force and recommendations that we put forth,” said Joseph.
As for the COVID vaccine, Dr. Nunez-Smith said the Task Force fully understands that the federal government has not always been trustworthy and American Indians and Alaska Natives have a rational reason to be hesitant, but partnerships are key to reaching those populations that may still have concerns.
“Thank you, NIHB, for your leadership. It’s important to have these partnerships to make sure that the messages resonate and acknowledge these hard truths and are delivered by messengers who have the best interest of Tribes at heart,” said Dr. Nunez-Smith.