Doctors Without Borders in rare mission within US sends team to Navajo Nation

Doctors Without Borders has sent a team to help the Navajo Nation battle the coronavirus outbreak in a rare mission within the U.S., the organization confirmed on Tuesday.

Doctors Without Borders spokesman Nico D'Auterive told The Hill that nine professionals were sent to assist the Navajo population in the southwest U.S. in April. The professionals will stay until at least the end of June.

The international group typically sends health professionals to conflict zones around the world during medical disasters, and the coronavirus pandemic marks the first time it has dispatched teams within the U.S.

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"At the moment, Doctors Without Borders is focused on providing technical guidance to health care facilities and organizations to assist with infection prevention and control," D'Auterive said in a statement.

Jean Stowell, the head of the U.S. COVID-19 response team, told CBS News on Monday that the team consists of two physicians, three nurses and midwives, a water sanitation specialist, two logisticians and a health promoter.

"Situationally, the Native American communities are at a much higher risk for complications from COVID-19 and also from community spread because they don't have access to the variety of things that make it possible to self-isolate,” Stowell said, according to CBS News. “You can't expect people to isolate if they have to drive 100 miles to get food and water." 

Navajo Nation, which consists of about 170,000 people, has more coronavirus cases per capita than any state in the U.S. with about 1,786 cases per 100,000 people. It also has a shortage of medical professionals, and its people have high rates of diabetes and hypertension, which can make them more vulnerable to the virus.

The largest tribe in the U.S., it has reported 100 fatalities. 

Some in the tribe are worried about the elders of Navajo Nation because they are at high risk for COVID-19 and in charge of preserving the tribe’s language and culture. 

Doctors Without Borders also sent a smaller team in mid-April to a location north of Albuquerque, N.M., where they helped the Pueblos, CNN reported.

--Updated at 12:08 p.m.