New Nonprofit Tackles COVID-19 in Native, Rural Communities

The organization will serve as a public health information and training hub for rural and Native communities in the state

By Associated Press

HELENA – A new public health advocacy organization in Montana is targeting the needs of rural and Native communities responding to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The nonprofit, called We Are Montana, was started by Cora Neumann, a public health expert who ran for U.S. Senate earlier this year, the Helena Independent Record reports. Neumann, as a first-time candidate, raised more than $643,840 and left about $200,600 in the bank when she dropped out of the race upon the entrance of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

She’s now using some of that money to kick-start the organization, which will serve as a public health information and training hub for rural and Native communities in the state.

“Getting timely and comprehensive public health information to local leaders makes a huge difference in a community’s ability to respond, and to not respond from fear but grounded knowledge,” Neumann said Wednesday.

While Neumann said the state has done a good job of getting information out in the immediate response to COVID-19, the focus needs to shift to building a strong public health infrastructure to prepare for any potential surges in cases going forward and help people adapt to the new normal.

“There’s the immediate response and then there’s the long-term mitigation and control and management,” Neumann said. ” … We should have a public health infrastructure that’s strong enough to handle something like this without having to shut the economy down. There is a real tension and concern between shutting down the economy as a pandemic mitigation tool.”

As the state begins to lift some of the regulations it had in place, Neumann said rural and Native communities remain at acute risk in part because of existing challenges around sufficient access to health care, the prevalence of preexisting conditions and lack of economic resources that come with their own host of health side effects.

We Are Montana will hold regular meetings on policy and to strengthen connections around the state. Neumann said the organization will also conduct a public health assessment with local and county-level leaders in frontier, small and medium-size communities, in partnership with the Montana Public Health Association.

In addition to working with local public health leaders, We Are Montana is partnering with organizations like Western Native Voice. Among early efforts of the project will be a COVID-19 relief fund, an effort led by Western Native Voice.

The relief fund has a goal of raising $50,000 to help tribal nationals in Montana meet immediate needs and acquire supplies such as personal protective equipment, food and medication.

One of the first things identified is a need for water heaters in homes on some tribal nations, said Marci McLean, the executive director of Western Native Voice. The heightened need for hand-washing has shown how many homes lack sufficient hot water. Other pressing needs are masks, gloves and cleaning supplies.

Money should also be directed toward medication delivery, McLean said. With the Indian Health Service limiting how many people can enter facilities at a time or the need for self-isolation, getting medications to those who need them can be a problem.

Another reason Indian Country faces challenges from COVID-19 are the high number of people who can share a single house and the frequency of several generations living under one roof.

“Where do you go isolate? We don’t have the luxury of having a camper trailer in our driveway or vacant house or vacant room,” McLean said. “We need to provide isolation space should we have an outbreak on one of our tribal nations.”

McLean said while COVID-19 comes with its own set of challenges, it’s also putting a bright spotlight on ongoing, long-term problems Indian Country has faced.

“One Band-Aid covers up one issue but it doesn’t cover up the root cause,” McLean said. “A long-term accomplishment I would like to see is getting to those root causes, addressing those root causes and having that long-term plan from a public health perspective to address the root causes of the disparities in our communities. We have root causes that are being exposed and we’re talking about how to address them at a broader level than just small pockets of people in some communities talking about them.”