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Over one year later: continuing to respond to COVID-19 in Indian Country

by Rear Adm. Michael Toedt, M.D., F.A.A.F.P., Chief Medical Officer, Indian Health Service

Today, I provided testimony during the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs oversight hearing on “Examining the COVID-19 Response in Native Communities: Native Health Systems One Year LaterExit Disclaimer: You Are Leaving . On the panel I was joined by the Honorable William Smith, National Indian Health Board chairperson; Walter Murillo, National Council of Urban Indian Health board president; Dr. Sheri-Ann Daniels, Papa Ola Lōkahi executive director; and Dr. Robert Onders, Alaska Native Medical Center administrator.

I want to thank the Committee for inviting us to testify and allowing us to bring attention to the successes and challenges faced by Native communities during COVID-19. I appreciated the opportunity to provide an update on how the Indian Health Service has responded to the pandemic over the last year.

Across the IHS, we have worked closely with our tribal and urban Indian organization partners, state and local public health officials, and our fellow federal agencies to coordinate a comprehensive public health response to COVID-19. Our number one priority has been, and continues to be, the safety of our IHS patients and staff, as well as tribal community members.

The IHS continues to play a central role as part of an all-of-nation approach to prevent, detect, treat, and recover from COVID-19. We remain dedicated to working with tribal and urban Indian leaders from across Indian Country to provide the latest updates, answer questions, and hear their concerns.

While the Indian health system is large and complex, we realize that these efforts require local expertise. I shared with the Committee that one of the most successful aspects of our response to the pandemic has been our respect of tribal sovereignty as we work with tribes and urban Indian organizations and recognize their ability to be most responsive to the needs of their communities.

We continue to see our American Indian and Alaska Native communities lead the way on COVID-19 vaccinations. In our efforts to reach community immunity, more than 1 million vaccines have been administered by IHS, tribal, and urban Indian health programs receiving vaccine distributions from the IHS. This achievement is despite the challenges we face in terms of the predominantly rural and remote locations we serve and the infrastructure challenges those communities face.

As I emphasized to the Committee, we must also make sure that we don’t neglect COVID-19 testing. To date, we have performed more than 2.2 million tests in our American Indian and Alaska Native communities. It’s so important to continue testing, not only to determine what types of variants are circulating, but also to make sure that we keep control of surveillance and understand where the virus is spreading. Testing will remain part of IHS’s broader strategy to monitor the spread and prevalence of COVID-19 and to protect our communities.

Through laws passed by Congress, additional resources, authorities, and flexibilities have helped the IHS workforce continue to provide critical services throughout the pandemic. IHS has administered over $9 billion to IHS, tribal, and urban Indian health programs to prepare for and respond to COVID-19. These resources have helped us expand vaccinations, available testing, public health surveillance, and health care services.

Moreover, they support the distribution of critical medical supplies and PPE in response to the pandemic. The American Rescue Plan Act in particular makes a historic investment in Indian Country, providing $6.1 billion in new funding to combat COVID-19, expand services, and recover critical revenues. IHS will continue to engage in rapid tribal consultation and urban confer sessions in advance of distributing COVID-19 resources to ensure that funds meet the needs of Indian Country.

We look forward to continuing our work with tribal, urban Indian organization, and federal partners across the country. It’s important that we continue to follow CDC guidelines and instructions from local, state, and tribal governments to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health and safety of our communities.

Today, I assured the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that the IHS remains committed to COVID-19 vaccine availability for all individuals within our health system as quickly as possible. Please consider getting a vaccine if you have not already, and help us reach community immunity so we can end the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Rear Adm. Michael Toedt, M.D., F.A.A.F.P., Chief Medical Officer, Indian Health Service

Rear Adm. Michael Toedt, M.D., serves as the Chief Medical Officer of the Indian Health Service. He provides national leadership for the clinical and community-based health programs of the agency and serves as the primary liaison and advocate for IHS health professionals.