As COVID-19 swept across the country, one of the hardest hit areas were the lands of the Navajo Nation and nearby Native American communities in Northwestern New Mexico. Throughout the spring and summer, the pandemic emerged as a severe test of New Mexico’s county and tribal health councils, which were established to address community health needs and concerns and help withstand these kinds of crises. Helping the tribal health councils navigate the pandemic is New Mexico Culture of Health, a project led by New Mexico Alliance of Health Councils (NMAHC) and Presbyterian Healthcare Services that seeks to build community engagement and address health inequities by helping health councils engage their communities in more participatory, effective, and equitable ways. New Mexico Culture of Health is one of the six state grant recipients in the Community Voices for Health initiative (see box).
State public health orders enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic created multiple obstacles for the New Mexico Culture of Health team, most notably the need to develop the use of tools and resources that allow them to follow social distancing protocols. The project team moved quickly to reconfigure pieces of the initiative to transition from face-to-face interaction to digital collaboration in an effort to maintain momentum.
“Our goal is to engage our community in the ways that work for them,” said Sharon Finarelli, executive director, NM Health Councils. “One of the best ways we’ve been able to do this is to transition to holding virtual meetings and classes and using digital platforms to keep people safe and engaged at the same time. We have actually seen an increase in participation because individuals are not having to drive several hours, particularly from our more rural counties, to attend meetings.”
When the initiative launched, New Mexico Culture of Health began a process of selecting the six county and tribal health councils and rounding out the network partnership for the implementation phase of the project. The application and interview process resulted in the selection of the following six health councils: Acoma Pueblo, Lincoln/Otero Collaborative, Luna County/Binational collaboration, McKinley County, Tesuque Pueblo and Socorro County. Working with the six communities will allow New Mexico Culture of Health to have an impact at the local level and gather data and information that can help other communities across New Mexico battle COVID-19 effectively.
“The pandemic has really reinforced the importance of honoring the wisdom of and supporting our resilient communities through the New Mexico Culture of Health initiative, and the need to be flexible and responsive as we leverage our resources to support our partnerships and collaborations,” said Leigh Caswell, Vice President, Presbyterian Community Health.
The promise of New Mexico’s health council system is that it can facilitate the kind of deep engagement and long-term planning that will help communities, in Northwestern New Mexico and all across the state, withstand threats like COVID-19. By reacting to and learning from the current crisis, the NMCOH team hopes to fulfill that promise.
What is a Health Council?
Health councils, established in 1991 by the New Mexico legislature, help communities organize to identify and focus on local health priorities (tribal health councils were later added to the legislation). Using published health data and local information, they produce detailed assessments of local health needs and resources which are used at the state and local level. Helen Henry of the New Mexico Alliance of Health Councils shares, “the community-based focus that health councils have is significant because they are run by and for the communities that they serve.” More information about county and tribal health councils can be found here.