The mortality and hospitalization rates for Native Americans diagnosed with COVID-19 remain far above other racial and ethnic groups in New Mexico, even as the number of Native Americans testing positive for the illness has declined since the outset of the pandemic.

The age-adjusted COVID-19 mortality rate among Native Americans is 216 per 100,000 people in the state, according to Tierney Murphy, a medical epidemiologist at the state Department of Health. That’s a staggering 18 times higher than the mortality rate among Hispanics and 23 times higher than whites.

The Native American hospitalization rate is 763 per 100,000 people, compared with only 53 per 100,000 for Hispanics and 21 in the white population, she said.

“American Indian persons have worse outcomes from this infection compared to persons in other racial ethnic groups,” Murphy told lawmakers on the Legislature’s Indian Affairs Committee during a hearing Tuesday.

Native Americans now account for a smaller percentage of overall New Mexico COVID-19 cases than they did in the early days of the pandemic.

In mid-April through early May, nearly 60 percent of the state’s cases were Native Americans. That figure had dropped to 36 percent as of Tuesday, according to state data. The rate among Hispanics had increased, meanwhile, from about a quarter of the population to nearly 41 percent.

Still, Native Americans account for only 10.5 percent of New Mexico’s population, according to 2015 census data cited by the state’s Economic Development Department, while Hispanic residents make up over 49 percent.

McKinley and San Juan counties, which contain parts of the Navajo Nation, saw a huge spike in positive test results in the first months of the pandemic, when they led New Mexico in total number of cases.

As of Tuesday, McKinley had reported 4,009 total cases, with 222 deaths, and San Juan had reported 3,008 cases and 181 deaths. Bernalillo County, which overtook McKinley County last month with the highest count, had registered 4,947 cases as of Monday. The number of deaths there was lower, however, at 124.

Sen. Shannon Pinto, a member of the Navajo Nation, called on state health officials at the hearing to do more to determine why Native Americans are faring so much worse when they contract COVID-19.

“I think there has to be a deeper analysis,” said Pinto, D-Tohatchi. “Not just saying, ‘Oh, Native Americans are on the top here.’ I don’t find that enough. I have my own observations, but I do need the data to back it up.”

That additional analysis would help tribal officials and legislators decide where to best allocate resources toward fighting COVID-19 in Native American communities, Pinto said.

State health officials said they were continuing to analyze COVID-19 data to understand the disparities, including looking at how underlying medical conditions contribute to worse overall outcomes.

Brooke Doman, tribal epidemiologist at the state Department of Health, said officials have noted a trend that Native Americans who die of COVID-19 are younger than Hispanics and whites who succumb to the disease.

“I can definitely speculate on some of the reasons, but I don’t have that evidence to back it up,” Doman said.


Jens Gould covers politics for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He was a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Mexico City, a regular contributor for TIME in California, and produced the video series Bravery Tapes.

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