WEST SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Studies have shown that American Indians have experienced disproportionate rates of infection and mortality throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Those findings hit home for a West Sacramento family when two loved ones were lost within two weeks of each other.
"COVID has really destroyed this family," said Naqiba Gregory, a friend, and colleague of Phyllis Harden, who died of COVID-19 at the end of August. "And the sad thing was, she was saying goodbye to her husband through the glass when she realized she tested positive. And her husband passed and she ended up staying in there and passing as well."
According to the CDC, vaccine breakthrough cases are expected because no vaccine is 100% effective at preventing an illness in vaccinated people.
On August 29, Phyllis Harden died of COVID-19, just two weeks after her husband, Steve Harden. Gregory said Harden and her husband were both vaccinated and Phyllis Harden was to get a booster shot before she became ill.
Harden was a member of the Pomo Tribe and active in the Native American community. She was a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother.
Gregory worked for the Washington Unified School District, where she and Phyllis were involved in the Indian Education Program.
"Help students retain their culture and be able to feel seen in the community," Gregory explained. "She was always a very strong supporter and very active in the program."
Gregory recalled that whenever Harden's family needed her, she was there for them.
"She was the matriarch of her family," Gregory explained. "She was the rock that held everyone together."
Gregory said Phyllis Harden's death is a part of a larger problem Native Americans faced throughout the pandemic.
"Native Americans throughout the country have been hit harder than most ethnic groups, just wiping out full families," she said.
According to the CDC, “COVID-19 incidence is higher among American Indians/Alaska Natives than non-Hispanic Whites. In 2009, American Indians/Alaska Natives experienced disproportionately high pandemic influenza A associated mortality.”
Gregory pointed to underlying illnesses within Native American communities as a potential cause for the disparity.
"There’s a lot of diabetes with Native Americans-- health issues," she explained.
Gregory helped to create a fundraiser for Phyllis Harden's family. She said by fundraising; she now hoped to fulfill Harden's last wishes.
"She wanted to make sure that the kids graduated, she wanted to make sure that everybody took care of Vinnie and made sure he still did his baseball, that they still supported him on that, and that she didn’t want to lose the house she worked really hard for," explained Gregory. "Her big thing is that she didn’t want her family to fall apart."