Supporting American Indian Elders During COVID-19

From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, tribal communities were among the communities most at risk. For example, in the Navajo Nation, chronic poverty, crowded living conditions, the risks posed by multiple diseases and weak healthcare infrastructure all contributed to one of the highest rates of COVID-19 infection in the United States.

Leveraging donor funding from its Emergency Response Fund and the Howell Fund, the CDC Foundation partnered with the Afya Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that collects and distributes medical and humanitarian supplies to communities around the world. Dedicated primarily to supporting underserved countries, the scale and impact of COVID-19 forced a rethinking of their traditional approach.

“We were not focused on the United States prior to COVID,” said Heather Clark, director of programs at Afya. “When COVID hit, we pivoted like many did to help those close to us that were in need.”

As part of its work for the CDC Foundation, Afya provided critically needed medical supplies to seven local partner organizations across four tribal communities: Navajo Nation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah; the Lakota Tribe in South Dakota; the Yurok Tribe in California; and the Apache Reservation in Arizona.

While personal protective equipment was an essential need in all four communities, the partners in the initiative worked to ensure that the shipments would fill as many gaps as possible. Reaching out to local partners, the Afya team designed shipments based on the unique needs of each community, depending on the services provided by each partner agency. And while needs varied, Clark said, every community had one overarching request.

“Elders hold a very special place within these cultures, and it was important for everyone we spoke with to take care of elders in the community,” Clark said. “One of our partners was a senior care facility, and we were able to deliver a range of supplies to help fill those gaps.”

Along with personal protective equipment for health workers, the program delivered essentials like hygiene kits, adult undergarments, canes, walkers and wheelchairs, as well as 200 new mattresses so elders could safely isolate away from their families in cabins built specifically for this purpose. Additionally, the team delivered a shipment of winter gear such as blankets, scarves and gloves, also intended for tribal elders. In total, the initiative provided more than 22,000 pounds of critically needed personal protective equipment, medical equipment and humanitarian supplies.

“At the time, American Indian communities had the highest infection rate in the United States,” Clark said. “The CDC Foundation provided Afya with funding very quickly, which allowed us to implement immediately.”

While inequities continue to pose a challenge to public health in tribal communities, elders in these four tribal communities are now better protected, and their communities at lower risk. Now, with additional support from the Howell Fund, the CDC Foundation is building on these efforts to support a vital safe water project in the Navajo Nation that will continue to limit the spread of COVID-19 among residents, building bridges to healthier communities into the future.