Non-traditional path leads new doctor to tribal lands to aid COVID-19 relief efforts


By: By Hannah R. Buchdahl

“This is my gap year,” says Anya Bazzell, MD, a recent graduate of the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. But it’s certainly not a year off, not with the COVID-19 pandemic exposing vulnerabilities in underserved communities, including the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.


In August, Dr. Bazzell signed on with the CDC Foundation COVID-19 Corps and relocated to Martha’s Vineyard to serve as the case investigator/contact tracer team lead for the tribe. It’s a role that provides her an opportunity to leverage her medical degree, as well as her master’s degrees in public health and biomedical sciences.


“Not only am I getting back to my public health roots—my true passion in medicine—but I am also afforded the opportunity to learn about a different culture,” she said. “[Tribal members] have shared with me pieces of their self-governance framework. They have showed me their land and vast cranberry sites. They have told me about their traditions. Even more, we have worked together to create procedure, protocol and frameworks that are truly meaningful and culturally relevant” during the pandemic, which has had a disproportionate impact on American Indian and Alaska Native communities.


As part of its overall COVID-19 response effort, the CDC Foundation hired 57 field staff to work with regional tribal organizations (Area Indian Health Boards) and their member tribes, including Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).


“Surge staff like Dr. Bazzell are helping tribes and tribal organizations meet their needs during a very difficult time,” said Angelica Al Janabi, MPH, the COVID-19 regional tribal coordinator who helped place Dr. Bazzell. “Tribes already face challenges ranging from health disparities to limited resources, which a pandemic can only exacerbate.” She says the CDC Foundation staffing initiative respects tribal sovereignty by allowing each jurisdiction to choose their own staff positions based on their greatest needs.


In November, Dr. Bazzell collaborated with the tribe’s Emergency Response Team and clinical staff to coordinate a drive-up event at three locations to prepare tribal members for the holiday season. Members were able to get tested for COVID-19; have their blood pressure, temperature and oxygen saturation levels checked; and receive care packages with PPE, hand sanitizer, dental kits and health education handouts–all while staying in the safety of their own vehicles.


Sixty tribal members were tested and nearly 300 kits were distributed during the event.


Dr. Bazzell is planning a virtual event next, to take the health education component a step further. “It is important for tribal members to know their numbers. We did check blood pressure at the drive-up sites, and I want to make sure people understand what those numbers mean and how they could potentially impact their immunity should COVID arise at their households,” many of which are multi-generational. “And, we want to make sure they have all the information they need to consider getting the vaccine when it is available.”


Dr. Bazzell stresses the importance of building trust within the tribal community.


“I am here to help and to contribute, not to control. I think that’s very important messaging to send to members of American Indian tribes who do have a troubled past in this country at the hands of outsiders,” she said. “Building that trust increases my ability to establish capacity building so even after this job is over, they’re able to implement the [health and safety protocols] I’ve established.”


When her time with the tribe is over—and the pandemic under control—Dr. Bazzell plans to start her residency and fulfill her ultimate goal: to increase health equity, especially among women in communities of color, by providing health education and treatment.