Report finds Native people got sicker from Covid-19 despite fewer pre-existing conditions

By: - September 6, 2023 4:15 am
A yellow sign with black and turquoise lettering describes COVID mask requirements on the Navajo Nation.

A sign displays a message about staying safe from the coronavirus at the entrance to the To’hajiilee housing community on May 25, 2020.(Photo by Sam Wasson / Getty Images)

new Covid-19 study published in PNAS Nexus by UNM researchers found that Native patients were sicker and more likely to die in the hospital than others, even though they had fewer pre-existing conditions.

The report is based on data from 475 patients brought to UNM hospital during the period April 2020 through December 2021.

The patients who identified as American Indian/Alaska Native were on average younger, and had fewer pre-existing conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), than those who identified as Hispanic or non-Hispanic white patients.

But they were more likely to need ventilators and to have more severe disease.

The report’s authors noted similar patterns of severe effects on Native people of historical outbreaks of respiratory infections including the 1918 influenza pandemic and tuberculosis.

The report was not conclusive on reasons why this might be the case. The authors noted there are almost certainly multiple factors, including possible immunological responses to the virus and social determinants of health. Those are things like economic stability, living conditions, access to clean water, all of which can affect overall health.

The report’s authors also did note that data were limited, due to the small numbers of other ethnic groups like Black and Asian patients in UNMH.

The study was led by UNM Center for Global Health Director D.J. Perkins and Research Associate Professor Ivy Hurwitz.

Hurwitz said in a UNM press release that as they began recruiting patients in the hospital, “We saw a lot of people who were really, really sick in the ICU, and a lot of those people unfortunately were American Indian. It was really sad. They were really suffering disproportionately.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Alice Fordham, KUNM
Alice Fordham, KUNM

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.