WHITERIVER — The White Mountain Apache Tribe made an Emergency Declaration on March 12, 2020, as the severity of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) became increasingly obvious. However, for the Tribe, they began monitoring the situation way before this declaration. The Tribe’s Division of Health Program (Health Program) was already tracking the virus in December and soon joined the Arizona Department of Health’s Daily AH Partner Call. The Indian Health Service (IHS) even gave the Tribe’s Health Board their preparation response to this virus at the beginning of the year.
The Tribe’s Health Program monitored this virus as the ‘high risk’ population associated with this virus paralleled the Tribe’s realities in terms of health disparities. As research and surveillance on this virus began showing individuals most at risk, the Tribe’s Health Department soon realized this virus could potentially mean bad news for the people of the reservation. The Tribe soon began implementing mitigation efforts to ensure its impact would be minimal.
Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood shared this belief and made the novel coronavirus the focal point of her March Supervisors Meeting when all tribal departments were instructed to make contingency plans for their departments in light of the rapid spread of COVID-19 outside of the reservation. After several other municipalities made an Emergency Declaration, the Chairwoman made the decision to make an Emergency Declaration with the health and safety of her people as her top priority. This Emergency Declaration activated the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to act as the Tribe’s official response team to COVID-19.
The EOC operates out of the Tribe’s Fire Department Administrative Trailer in Whiteriver and is headed by longtime Firefighter Carlos Valadez. There are a total of 11 staff members under his command. There is an Infectious Disease Control Officer, Public Information Officer, Logistics Chief, Operations Chief, Planning Chief, Finance Chief, Policy Coordinator, EOC Liaison, and GIS Technician. All of the EOC staff are professionals from the Tribe’s workforce who carry out there duties to the highest caliber
For the EOC, April 1, 2020, will forever go down in infamy as this is the day the Tribe received its first confirmed case of COVID-19 call from the State of Arizona’s Epidemiologist As soon as the Tribe’s Health Director and EOC Liasion, Jessica Rudalfo, put down her phone and made the painful announcement that COVID-19 had made its way to our homelands, the entire room at the EOC went quiet. Immediately thereafter Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood made her way to the radio station and notified her people of the arrival of COVID-19 to our land. She assured the people that we can get through this pandemic with prayers.
A typical day of the EOC begins at 8 a.m. and starts with a huddle going over the day’s objective. At 9 a.m. they join a conference call with Arizona Department of Health Services reviewing the state’s response to the pandemic. At 9:30 they host a conference call with the Tribe’s directors and supervisors who represent essential services of the Tribe. The team has also established a joint Incident Command Center with IHS and have a daily update call at 11 a.m. covering a wide range of issues. Three times a week they join a conference call with Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs. The list of calls ends with a 1 p.m. conference call with members of the Tribal Council. As they participate in these important calls it’s not uncommon to find each of them juggling many other tasks. The Tribe and EOCs story wouldn’t be possible without the leadership of the Incident Commander, diligence of the EOC staff, collaboration of all tribal programs, and guidance of the Tribal Council, all of whom serve with the wellbeing of the Tribe and our neighbors at the forefront.