NM Sen. Demands CDC Transparency On Tribal COVID-19 Data

By Joyce Hanson
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Law360 (June 22, 2020, 8:31 PM EDT) -- A U.S. senator from New Mexico has urged the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's director to honor tribal epidemiologists' requests for data showing how COVID-19 is spreading around their communities, saying that withholding the information hurts tribes as they struggle to tame the coronavirus.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., sent a letter Thursday to CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield, pointing to a recent news story in Politico that says the federal government has turned down the epidemiologists' requests for data about how tribe members are affected by the virus. The CDC should be as transparent about sharing data with tribes as it has been with states around the country, Heinrich said.

"By not allowing Native communities access to this data, your agency is playing a role in widening the health disparities that are already running rampant in areas that are ill-equipped to contain the spread and the outcomes of this pandemic," the senator wrote.

Heinrich also reminded the CDC that the federal government has a trust responsibility to ensure that Native American populations have access to the resources they need.

The CDC did not respond immediately to a request for comment Monday.

According to Heinrich, a dozen tribal epidemiology centers help advance care in Native American communities by investigating diseases and injuries, then providing reports to help programs respond to public health emergencies. He said he is concerned about the news that federal officials have been denying a release of data from the centers over the last month.

"The refusal to release this data is putting these communities at a higher risk for COVID-19," Heinrich wrote. "In order to properly and effectively contain the spread of COVID-19, data is needed so that public health officials have the opportunity to plan, implement and evaluate public health practices."

Heinrich added that the data will help identify underlying conditions making tribal communities more susceptible to the virus, and he urged the CDC to work with tribal epidemiologists around the country and immediately share the data they are requesting.

Shervin Aazami, director of congressional relations for the National Indian Health Board, told Law360 on Monday that the Politico story is accurate. Access to health data has been a long-standing issue for tribes, something that existed before COVID-19 and has been exacerbated by COVID-19, Aazami said.

Under the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, tribal governments and epidemiology centers are designated as public health authorities, according to Aazami. In practice, that should mean they have "streamlined and unfettered" access to public health information for surveillance and epidemiological work, he said.

But tribes don't have sovereignty over their health care data because CDC officials have failed to enforce its collection and distribution, educate staff and build relationships with tribes, Aazami said.

"To be frank, the CDC has not been the best partner to the tribes. Very little CDC funding goes to the tribes," Aazami said. "The statutory authority already exists for the CDC and the states to share data with the tribes and the tribal epidemiology centers, and we need them to act on it and fulfill their role in establishing the process by which the tribes will have unfettered and streamlined access to tribal data."

Heinrich has previously gone to bat for tribes as they deal with the effects of the coronavirus.

In April, he joined a bipartisan group totaling 19 senators and 12 U.S. representatives in asking President Donald Trump to ensure that agencies would uphold federal trust and treaty responsibilities to Native American tribes when implementing provisions of a newly enacted COVID-19 spending package.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, led the group on April 1 in urging Trump to guide the many agencies tasked with implementation of the landmark Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act as tribes receive approximately $10 billion of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill signed into law on March 27.

And in March, Heinrich was one of a group of 27 U.S. senators to ask Vice President Mike Pence to approve coronavirus emergency funds for Native Americans following congressional passage of a bill that included $40 million for tribes.

Udall also led that group in asking Pence to "meaningfully engage" with Indigenous people, saying his leadership of administration efforts to combat the virus came as the U.S. had already confirmed COVID-19 cases in states where tribes and urban Indian communities are located.

--Editing by Bruce Goldman.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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