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Gila River Indian Community Aims To Bounce Back From Pandemic Losses

Published: Tuesday, July 28, 2020 - 12:38pm
Updated: Wednesday, July 29, 2020 - 10:11am
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Bret Jaspers/KJZZ
Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis.

LAUREN GILGER: Arizona's tribal communities have been some of the hardest hit during the pandemic. Numbers of cases in Indian Country have soared, putting pressure on their often already stressed health care systems and economies. At one point, the Navajo Nation was the nation's hot spot for the virus. Then the White Mountain Apache tribe saw cases spike there. So today, let's hear from another tribe. This one a little closer to home — The Gila River Indian community sits south of the Valley and spans from near Goodyear to Coolidge, and it runs several of the major casinos in the area. I spoke with Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis more about how this tribe — his tribe has fared during the pandemic and reopening the casinos amidst the outbreak.

STEPHEN ROE LEWIS: Early on, as governor, I established a COVID management task force in late January. I did that as well as other tribes I know in Arizona and across Indian Country before we knew — before any type of real guidance from the federal government or from the states that we had to take control. The Gila River community, myself, lieutenant governor, and our 17-member council, our elected officials. We knew that we had to take control immediately in regards to this. At that time, it was a public health emergency. It was developing into a full blown pandemic. And so we started responding in late January. And also for the Gila River community as some sort, not all tribes, but we have our own health care facility and we run independently of the federal government. And so here health care, they established a helpline right away and established protocols for testing and treatment of individuals seeking care at our health care facilities. And we also obtained a state-of-the-art mobile hospital unit as well early on to be prepared again for overflow, should that be required to treat our patients, so.

GILGER: So have you had enough health care and hospital capacity throughout the pandemic, as we've seen sort of other hospitals around the state, you know, be very close to capacity?

LEWIS: You know, we didn't, we had to grow in this capacity and we had to be sometimes entrepreneurial. You know, there was no map for this. And so the responsibility, I think just, just as the responsibility fell on state governors, this fell onto leadership such as myself, to come up with our own plan of action to protect our community members, our employees, our tribal enterprises. You know, all of these issues having to do with testing, with PPE, on the state level, national, you know, the, the, the tribes have had to face that even more acutely.

GILGER: We've seen such difficult situations arise in Indian Country across the nation, right? Especially here on the Navajo Nation in Arizona. Now, the White Mountain Apache tribe is facing some really tough numbers. Are you seeing sort of disproportionate numbers there on the Gila River Indian community or have you been able to, because of some of these measures you took early on, stave it off?

LEWIS: You know what? And I think this goes to, I think this unique relationship that tribes have with the federal government, with the states. I think this shows the history of tribes having a lack of infrastructure, whether it's with regards to water, whether it's with regards to health care, to roads. You know, this shows a lack of investment by the federal government. And I think for us, any tribe can get a hot spot. I think there's a number of reasons for this. Again, it's tribal health disparities which led to those underlying conditions that are problematic for the coronavirus, the community, and also, as I say, across Indian Country, you know, we've had the lack of infrastructure that lead to high, those high transmission rates. When you especially talked about those, those other tribes are doing in part because we have multiple generations that live in the same household. And so the viruses have highlighted some of those areas where there's, yeah, there's been long-term underinvestment in Indian Country. So we're grateful for the investments that Congress has made in COVID relief funding, the CARES Act, and now we're looking at of course, the HEROES Act as well. And we put that funding to good use, but we're still advocating for more. This is both a health and an economic crisis. That's why we have one of the highest per capita rates of transmission of the virus — Native American communities — while our tribal economies have been disrupted.

GILGER: I want to ask you, lastly, Governor, about casinos there. In the beginning of July, the three Gila River hotels and casinos reopened after shuttering for a second time due to the COVID outbreak. This after one of the employees died there from reportedly related complications to COVID. They reopened with stricter safety measures. But as you say, the state is still seeing high numbers of cases. And, you know, this is a kind of a place where people from outside are going to come. What kinds of measures are being taken, not just for those who work in the casinos, but to protect the community from that outbreak?

LEWIS: Well, you know, I think, you know, that this goes back again to the underinvestment within Indian Country was from the federal government. This shows a lot of the, the inequities that have been going on for a long time. All these issues having to do with a lack of investment with tribes trying to grow their economy. You know, we don't have a tax base that is similar to stateside. And so we have to balance health care and the health and safety of our community first with keeping our economy going. You know, we can help our tribal enterprises. They provide 75% of our total, total revenue. And that keeps our tribal governments going. You know, we have to provide for our schools, for our health care, for roads, for all the infrastructure, water, power, housing, education that is for schools, you know. So this is not just a black or white or very simplistic. This is a very, very deep rooted in regards to these, these types of services that we have to provide as tribal nations. You know, when we talk about health, how are we keeping our community members safe during a pandemic as well? Today, the community has conducted over 42,000 tests with a total of approximately 1,500 positive results, with approximately a third of those representing cases on the reservation.

GILGER: All right. That is Stephen Roe Lewis, the governor of the Gila River Indian community, joining us. Governor, thank you so much for the time.

LEWIS: Thank you.

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