WMAT Chairwoman gets a one-on-one with Dr. Fauci

Using the technology available at NAU’s Native American Center in Flagstaff, WMAT Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood connected with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, for a one-on-one regarding COVID-19 issues.

WHITERIVER — The White Mountain Apache Tribe (WMAT), who actively went to war against the coronavirus and is close to entering Phase Three of their COVID-19 Re-opening plan, was able to get a few answers to looming questions about the coronavirus from the nation’s leading infectious disease expert on March 22.

Thanks to Northern Arizona University’s Native American Center and its technology, Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood, who was in Flagstaff on personal business, was able to conduct an interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Though Lee-Gatewood was given a firm ten minute window with President Biden’s chief medical adviser, the interview miraculously extended to 25 minutes.

Focusing on children returning to school, Tribal elders, the new variant and sharing the success of the Tribe’s story on combating the virus as a community working together, Fauci served up answers that affirmed the direction in which the Tribe is moving.

Clips which focused on two particular questions asked of Fauci were shared on the Chairwoman’s March 27 live Facebook stream, “Saturday Morning with Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood.”

One of the questions posed to Fauci dealt with concerns Tribal parents have over their children returning to school. Having heard that a three year old elsewhere in the country had the virus, some parents wondered about kids carrying the virus, and their safety at school. Lee-Gatewood said they did not want the kids to lose out on school for a year and have to play catch up and wanted to know Fauci’s advice on the subject.

“The children belong in school” stated Fauci. “We should do everything to get them to get into school and stay in school. The CDC has guidelines about what you can do in school to help to guarantee not only the safety of the children but of the teachers and the educational personnel. We recommend that the children get in school and stay in school but abide by the recommendations of CDC and avoiding infection in the classroom.”

Relaying the Tribe’s effective response to the virus through the collaboration of the Emergency Operations Center, (EOC), the medical team, Indian Health Service (IHS), John Hopkins, Tribal leadership and Community Health Representatives (CHR), Lee-Gatewood asked Fauci how to get the word out to others on what the Tribe has done to flatten the curve.

Fauci’s response was for the Tribe to tell their story through news and social media.

Having communicated the Tribe’s concerns regarding the elders and the new variant, Fauci reiterated the CDC guidelines which the Tribe has been following.

Though the questions posed to Fauci were serious with regard to the pandemic, the interview concluded with a bit of levity as Lee-Gatewood asked Fauci how he thought the Washington Nationals were going to do this year. Without hesitation, and with a slight chuckle, he said he believed they are going to win. Though they had a bad year last year, he said they did win the World Series in 2019.

Lee-Gatewood took Fauci up on sharing the Tribe’s story through the news media as she revisited with the Independent the Tribe’s actions from the first time they heard of COVID-19 to date.

Though the Tribe issued an Emergency Declaration regarding the coronavirus on March 12, 2020, their Division of Health Program had already begun tracking the virus in December 2019.

Having implemented a monthly department supervisors meeting when she took office, Lee-Gatewood said in January or February 2020 they advised the supervisors about the spread of the virus and a tabletop exercise was conducted for preparation.

When the tribe issued the Emergency Declaration, it activated the EOC to act as the Tribe’s official response team to COVID-19. Lee-Gatewood said this group has stood their ground to see that the plans were carried out even though, at times, they were not popular. She said they showed up for work even when they were tired which took valuable time away from their own families.

“Thursday, April 1 is the anniversary of the first COVID positive,” said Lee-Gatewood. “I will never forget that day. Everyone was on guard and alert as to what was going on in the country. Everyday we watched the dashboard. It felt like a punch to the throat as I went to the radio station to announce we have our first positive.”

“IHS, John Hopkins and EOC had already deployed. It was like getting our Army ready to go to war. Everybody, hunker down and let’s do it,” said Lee-Gatewood.

As of March 31 the Tribe has been at a zero increase for seven straight days. They have four active positive cases; have had 3,956 positive cases since April 1, 2020 with 3,903 recoveries; have administered 22,787 COVID-19 tests of which 18,706 were negative and they have had 49 deaths. First dose Pfizer vaccinations are at 7,367 as of March 31 and second doses at 6,155. The number administered for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is 420.

“We are mindful of our place. It does not mean we are boastful of who we are. Our people have always been prayerful. Everything has a purpose and as long as we continue to remember the Creator and each other, and do our best to be our best, we will be ok,” said Lee-Gatewood.

“We are now vaccinated but we must be mindful to social distance and wear our masks. It is no different than going out in the cold without wearing your jacket. The same with masks. Protect someone else and yourself,” said Lee-Gatewood.

Reach the reporter at bbruce@wmicentral.com

Barbara Bruce is a reporter for the White Mountain Independent, covering arts and entertainment on the Mountain and the Pinetop-Lakeside town government.

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