The St. Mary entrance to Glacier National Park, which borders the Blackfeet Nation, remained closed during the summer of 2020 as Blackfeet officials implemented strict measures in an effort to keep covid-19 off the reservation. (Aaron Bolton for KHN)
COVID-19 was the leading cause of death in 2020 among Montana’s native population, despite the state’s seven reservations instituting stricter public health mitigation measures compared to the rest of the state, according to a December report released by the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
The report found COVID-19 was responsible for 251 of the 1,022 total deaths among Montana Native Americans in 2020. Heart disease was the second leading cause of death, accounting for 119 deaths. Comparatively, there has been an average of 676 deaths each year during the previous five years for Native Americans in the state.
For Montanans at large, COVID-19 was the third-leading cause of death, according to the report.
While Native Americans only make up around 7 percent of the state’s population, they accounted 32 percent of the deaths and 19 percent of cases in the state from March to October of 2020.
As noted in a Montana Budget and Policy Center report cited by the Great Falls Tribune, the disparities are not random.
“Due to a long history of racist public policies, ongoing settler colonialism, and underinvestment, Montanans who are American Indian disproportionately experience underlying health conditions and economic challenges that heighten the risk of the pandemic,” said the June report.
The DPHHS report acknowledged these disparities: “American Indian communities have higher levels of social vulnerability, such as a living in shared housing, difficulties accessing timely health care, and lower household incomes, which may increase the risk for infection.”
As of Thursday, 2,895 Montanans have died from COVID-19 related issues and 195,669 residents have tested positive for the infection. On Thursday, the state reported 264 new cases.
The state’s vaccination rate has remained stagnant for months hovering around 50 percent — compared to a vaccination rate of around 98 percent on the Blackfeet Reservation.
The Great Falls Tribune reported that as of Tuesday, the Blackfeet Nation reported 56 total COVID-19 deaths among reservation residents with seven active cases and two active hospitalizations; the Fort Belknap Indian Community on Tuesday reported 13 total COVID-19 deaths on the reservation and three active cases. And as of Thursday, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe reported 51 total COVID-19 deaths and no active cases.
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