Above: Within a week of the first COVID-19 case in McKinley County, Dr. Jennie Wei worked to provide housing for those in need. Photograph by Gabrielle Marks.
IN EARLY MARCH 2020, a doctor at Gallup Indian Medical Center received a phone call. A patient who experienced chronic homelessness and often rotated into shelters had developed strange medical symptoms. The patient was given a COVID-19 test, but the caller asked Dr. Jennie Wei where they could quarantine.
“We knew this wasn’t going to be a one-time thing,” says Wei, an internal medicine physician at the medical center and chief clinical consultant for internal medicine with the Indian Health Service. Before the pandemic, the medical center was already severely under-
resourced, and the city experienced up to 1,500 people a day seeking temporary shelter.
Now, with COVID-19 beginning to spread, the hospital needed to get people tested without utilizing the emergency room and find ways to quarantine those who tested positive. “We were going to keep getting calls to provide beds for homeless individuals to quarantine,” Wei says.
A native Midwesterner, Wei had always been fascinated by science and how healthcare data can be applied to improve lives. After attending Harvard Medical School, Wei spent a summer in Kayenta, Arizona, while a resident with the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. The experience on the Navajo Nation demonstrated how she could help rural, underserved communities. “I’m never bored. I do inpatient, outpatient, ICU care,” says Wei, who also started a transgender health clinic in 2013. “I can flex all of those muscles.”
In 2014, she helped establish the Gallup-McKinley County Task Force on Alcohol. While many organizations in the city performed hands-on work with alcohol addiction, Wei wanted to bring together representatives from local hospitals, government, and detox and rehabilitation facilities to craft cohesive solutions to the problem. With almost seven years of monthly meetings and collaboration to build upon, the group was well equipped to address the COVID-19 crisis.
Wei and others worked with the county and state, community organizations, and even family and friends to book rooms at local hotels so homeless patients could quarantine. Within a week of the first COVID-19 case in McKinley County, the hotel isolation project was in operation, housing people for up to 20 days. Through various solutions, more than 1,800 people who had been unable to access housing before found temporary places to stay.
“Dr. Wei saved lives,” says Debra Martinez, the City of Gallup’s behavioral health manager and a member of the task force. Thanks to Wei’s expertise as a physician, community leaders listened and responded to the issues facing Gallup’s homeless community. “People would have been on the streets if it weren’t for her,” Martinez says.
Wei believes that the model they developed provides a long-term solution for getting people off the streets. “Not only did giving these people shelter flatten the curve, but they had their acute medical issues addressed,” she says. Once individuals had their basic needs met, they could take the next steps to better their lives. “For the first time, some were housed safely, were sober, and filled out job and rehab applications.”
With the hotel program showing results, Wei pushed to widen its impact. In February, the Gallup Behavioral Health division and McKinley County commissioners reopened the Lexington Hotel, on Route 66, for permanent supportive housing.
Martinez says that Wei provides a voice to a population in Gallup that often lacks one. “After you talk to Dr. Wei,” she says, “you walk away feeling like you’re important.”