In the United States, people of color have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, and Native Americans are no exception. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Indian and Alaska Native people are 5.3 times more likely than white people to be hospitalized due to COVID-19, the largest disparity for any racial or ethnic group.
There are myriad reasons why Native Americans are particularly susceptible to the virus, including social inequities and disproportionately high rates of preexisting conditions – such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma and obesity – that can put them at extra risk of severe illness. Many also live in multigenerational homes with large families, which can make social distancing a challenge.
Access to quality health care is also an issue. The Indian Health Service, the federal agency that provides health services for many American Indians and Alaska Natives, is chronically underfunded and under-resourced. In 2018, most of its hospitals reportedly were operating with fewer than 50 total beds, while the agency had about 20% fewer doctors than what it believed was ideal.
While experts acknowledge the situation is dire, it’s impossible to know COVID-19’s true toll on the Native American community. Coronavirus data by race and ethnicity is notably incomplete; in late September, states reported race and ethnicity for just 74% of coronavirus cases and 89% of deaths on average, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run platform supported by journalists, scientists and other researchers.
Inconsistencies in how race and ethnicity are identified in states’ reporting of COVID-19 cases and deaths also limit analysis and understanding, with American Indians or Alaska Natives sometimes grouped into a broader category classification. And tribes themselves are not required to report all of the data they collect to the state.