UCSF Medical Team Travels To Navajo Nation For Month-Long Fight Against COVID-19

Doug Sovern
April 27, 2020 - 3:00 am

    A team of doctors and nurses from the University of California, San Francisco is on the ground in the Navajo Nation to help Native American physicians deal with one of the country’s worst documented surges of COVID-19.

    Five years ago, KCBS Radio profiled UCSF Dr. Sriram Shamasunder when he founded the HEAL Initiative, a global health fellowship that trains doctors from underserved areas to go work in underserved areas.

    Forty-nine of those UCSF fellows live and work on the vast Navajo Nation that sprawls across northern Arizona and New Mexico.

    Now, they’re overwhelmed by a coronavirus surge and Dr. Shamasunderwhen is leading a team of seven doctors and 14 nurses from UCSF who have gone there to help.

    "They just kept telling us they really need nurses, emergency medicine nurses, clinical care nurses, generalists and obviously also ICU (doctors)," Dr. Shamasunder told KCBS Radio. "So, there is a real shortage at baseline, and I think COVID has really exacerbated that."

    THOREAU, NEW MEXICO - JUNE 06: A trailer stands on land belonging to members of the Navajo Nation in the town of Thoreau on June 06, 2019 in Thoreau, New Mexico.
    Spencer Platt/Getty Images

    Because no coronavirus surge has materialized here, Dr. Shamasunderand his team will spend the next month there trying to flatten the curve and keep the virus not just from devastating the population, but its heritage.

    "Founders of this community often have the oral history of the community that gets passed down generation after generation," Dr. Shamasunder said."If COVID takes out that generation, which there’s so much nervousness, anxiety and that has happened to some degree. Then the stories, the oral history, the culture, the spirituality, how does that get transferred to the younger generation?"

    With an underfunded health system, rampant diabetes and multiple generations living in close quarters, the reservation’s population was an easy target for COVID-19.

    "For a lot of our fellows, this is deeply personal, obviously," Dr. Shamasunder said. "They bring their professional leadership capacities to a deeply personal pandemic. For UCSF to be able to stand alongside them and accompany them in this moment, I think is a great gift."

    The Navajo Nation has over 1,300 cases and 70 deaths.

    Per capita, that’s the third hardest hit region in the country after New York and New Jersey.