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'The Impact Is Real': The Ripple Effects Of COVID-19 Disparities For Native People In Milwaukee

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Courtesy of Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Care Center
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Lyle Ignace getting his second shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Native Americans in the United States have the highest rate of chronic disease among all ethnic groups in the country. This means that more Indigenous people are at higher risk for severe outcomes when it comes to COVID-19.

In addition to greater risk, Native people are 1.4 times more likely to catch COVID-19 than their white counterparts.

Lyle Ignace is the CEO of the Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Care Center (GLIIHC). He says the disparity in health outcomes from COVID-19 aren’t the only issue facing Native people, as the pandemic has disrupted many families’ economic position.

“We have families who may be completely dependent a particular individual who has a good job, income, not only just that person’s immediate spouse but may also help support their kids and maybe their grandkids, and the impact can be quite devastating when a particular primary income earner succumbs to COVID and passes and you lose that,” Ignace says.

Mental health is another area of concern for GLIIHC. Ignace says demand for mental health services, especially among youth ages 6-17, has exploded.

“We keep hiring new mental health providers and they fill up right away and it’s, we have a backlog of almost a month, which we never had prior to COVID but now we do,” he says. “We’re seeing it, the impact is real and it’s magnified.”

In the long term, Ignace says it is going to take years of work to address the mental health issues caused by the pandemic.

“That’s gonna be, probably, years of trying to help individuals get back to where they were before COVID and really try to help balance one’s life again,” he says.

One area, Ignace says, where GLIIHC has been excelling is in their work vaccinating Native Americans in Milwaukee County. The clinic receives allocations of vaccine directly from the federal Indian Health Service and hasn’t had a single dose go to waste.  

“We’ve been successful in getting through individuals beyond what the state is doing. We’re down to age group of 50 and older now,” he says. “So we’ve had a direct impact in the community with our vaccine effort.”

GLIIHC’s next community vaccine event will run from Tuesday, Mar. 9 to Thursday, Mar. 11 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. Enrolled tribe members or descendants residing in Milwaukee County can sign-up online or by calling 414-316-3737.

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Jack Hurbanis started as the WUWM Digital Intern in January 2020, transitioning to Assistant Digital Producer in July and Digital Producer in January 2021.