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As the new coronavirus ravaged the White Mountain Apache Tribe in eastern Arizona, Eugenia Cromwell did her best to stay home to keep herself safe. Visits to the grocery store and post office were instead passed off to her daughter, with whom she shared a home near Whiteriver.

So it came as a surprise to the 79-year-old Apache woman when she learned in August she tested positive for COVID-19 along with two other people in her home. Knowing the virus could severely impact older adults, Cromwell feared for her life.

More than 15,000 members make up the White Mountain Apache Tribe, whose reservation spans 1.6 million acres of land across Gila, Apache and Navajo counties. Whiteriver, the tribe’s largest community and capital, is home to about 4,000 residents.

The tribe in early June surpassed the Navajo Nation in total number of COVID-19 cases per capita, meaning it had one of the highest infection rates in the country. By mid-August, about the time Cromwell tested positive for the virus, there were more than 2,300 identified COVID-19 cases and 38 known deaths.

However, the tribe’s number of new daily and active COVID-19 cases dropped in the last few months. The tribe’s number of COVID-19 related deaths through the pandemic also remained consistently low with a fatality rate on Wednesday of 1.6%, which is less than the state’s rate of 2.5% and country’s at 2.7%.

Health officials lend credit, in large part, to its robust contract tracing efforts on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. So does Cromwell, who tested negative for the virus about three weeks after her initial diagnosis. 

Eugenia Cromwell, 78, is a high-risk White Mountain Apache Tribe COVID-19 patient. (Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic)

“I’m crying because I’m happy, these are wonderful people,” she said last month with tears in her eyes. “I’m so glad that I’m alive today.”

Officials go beyond just tracing, visiting some almost daily for check-ups

A healthcare provider on the morning of Sept. 10 paid a visit to Cromwell’s home to do a wellness check, reserved for patients considered high risk for complications from COVID-19.

Like clockwork, Cromwell quickly set up a chair on her front patio, wheeled out an oxygen concentrator and masked up. Several cicadas buzzed from a tree overhead while Victoria Moses, a health tech at Whiteriver Indian Hospital, checked Cromwell’s oxygen levels and asked her questions.

It was one of several visits made to Cromwell’s home since members of her family began testing positive for the virus in August. The wellness checks, in large part, involve monitoring a patient’s oxygen levels while sitting and walking — which for Cromwell also meant dodging a handful of ducks and a pig roaming her front yard.

“The patients get so used to our team that we’ll receive phone calls saying no one’s come to my house yet today,