Utah tribal members urged to protect elders, sanitize hands

When coronavirus struck Utah’s Native American communities last spring, the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) launched messaging campaigns designed to resonate with the community-oriented tribal members. The most critical component of the message was the need to keep elders safe. 

The tribal pandemic response was slightly different, given the different priorities of the tribal community, said Melissa Zito, director of Utah’s office of American Indian/Native Alaskan Health Affairs. Zito discussed this and other topics as she shared her department’s initiatives with the Native American Legislative Committee members Monday. 


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While much of the messaging is consistent with mainstream pandemic response guidelines, such as mask wearing and clean hands, regular hand washing isn’t always an option on some reservations.

“In rural and frontier communities, plumbing and running water is sometimes hard to come by,” she said.

Therefore, public service announcements focus on how to best use hand sanitizer, she said.

Zito believes early efforts by the Office of American Indian & Alaska Native Health Affairs and UDOH helped quell potential outbreaks. Maintaining continuity of communications between the Office of AI/AN Health Affairs at the UDOH, the Indian Health System (I/T/U) and all eight tribal governments has been a key to the successful pandemic response.

The partnership allowed for the facilitation, coordination and tracking of sample kits to those I/T/U facilities conducting testing, the facilitation of mobile testing sites on reservations, the development and establishment of Memorandum of Agreements between (I/T/U) public health departments and the UDOH epidemiology team for reporting of communicable and infectious diseases and COVID-19. It also allowed for contract tracing through shared jurisdictions. 

Since April 2020, UDOH conducted 21 mobile testing events including four at the Confederated Tribes of Goshute Reservation eight at the Navajo Nation/Utah Navajo Health System, four at the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe/White Mesa Community and five at the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake. A total of 5,383 kits were distributed.

The department is in the process of hiring a tribal epidemiologist and a health coordinator, Zito said. 

While discussing the department’s report, Zito also said the department is looking to close gaps in tribal public health access, training and technical assistance regarding public health and medical assistance programs to Utah’s AIAN population. She said that though the partnerships are strong between agencies and community groups, lack of funding threatens its effectiveness.

Stakeholders have been trying to hammer out how the resiliency in tribal communities can translate into better health, Zito said.

“How does that resiliency from generations of trauma impact their physical health and what does that mean?” she asked. To find that answer, she said decision makers need to not only improve data collections, but also listen to the community members to understand what’s important to them.