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Hospital May be Racial Profiling with COVID-19 Testing

— June 26, 2020

New Mexico hospital is screening asymptomatic new mothers for the coronavirus…but only if they are Native American.

Lovelace Women’s Hospital in Albuquerque recently implemented a policy to conduct coronavirus screenings for pregnant women, based on whether they appeared to be Native American, even if they had no symptoms or were otherwise at low risk for the disease, according to clinicians who believe this constitutes as racial profiling.

The hospital screens all arriving patients for COVID-19 with temperature checks and asks them whether they’ve been in contact with people who have the illness.  But for soon-to-be moms who appeared to be Native American, there was additional precautions taken.  The hospital’s staff would compare the expectant mother’s ZIP code against a list of Indian reservation ZIP codes on file, known to internal employees as the “Pueblos List.  If the pregnant woman’s ZIP code matched, she was designated as a “person under investigation” for COVID-19.

Since babies were sometimes born before asymptomatic Native American mothers’ test results came back from the lab, the hospital then separated Native American newborns from their mothers.  This occurred in at least half a dozen cases, according to one unnamed physician, and was carried out because the population has one of the highest COVID-19 rates in the United States.

Hospital May be Racial Profiling with COVID-19 Testing
Photo by JESHOOTS on Unsplash

“I believe this policy is racial profiling,” one clinician said. “We seem to be applying a standard to Native Americans that isn’t applied to everybody else.  We seem to be specifically picking out patients from Native communities as at-risk whether or not there are outbreaks at their specific pueblo or reservation.”

Lovelace spokesperson Whitney Marquez acknowledged screening patients by geography, but she would not confirm or deny the existence of a policy based on ZIP codes as described by staff. “Part of our screening process includes identifying and testing patients who reside in high-risk areas such as nursing homes and regional hot spots of COVID-19 cases as recommended” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  However, the agency’s guidelines state only pregnant patients with COVID-19 symptoms or recent high-risk contacts with COVID-19 patients should be tested.

“Regardless of pending test results, pregnant individuals who are asymptomatic at the time of admission and have no history of high-risk contact should not be considered to be suspected cases,” the CDC guidelines state.

In a follow-up statement, Marquez said Lovelace’s residential geography screening applied to all patients, indicating, “Any patient admitted to the hospital for any reason from a designated hot spot region is tested for COVID-19 as a PUI (person under investigation), per CDC guidance.”  Many of the hospital’s staff said this just wasn’t the case.

“This isn’t about where you live or if you live in a hot spot – it’s about whether someone thinks you look Native,” a clinician explained. “The only people for whom we’ve been told to check ZIP codes are patients who appear to be Native.”

Nicolle L. Gonzales, a Navajo nurse midwife who worked at Lovelace for two years, first heard about the policy last month.

“You know, if you’re a Native person in an all-white setting, how do you speak up for yourself?” she asked. “There is no way to measure whether you’re being racially profiled or racially excluded from a norm [of treatment] that’s happening or not happening with others.”

New Mexico’s Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said these are “significant, awful allegations” regarding potential racial profiling and the state is currently investigating.


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