After a 'scary' beginning, Navajo leaders say their COVID-19 response has become a model

·7 min read

Two years after the first cases of COVID-19 were detected on the Navajo Nation, the tribal government still requires mask wearing in public, even as many cities and states elsewhere have relaxed the rule.

It's part of a strategy that was put in place after the coronavirus swept through the Navajo Nation in the early weeks and months of 2020, leaving hundreds of people sick and dying. Officials say it ultimately made Navajo a model for fighting a pandemic.

Navajo officials have reported 1,659 COVID-19 related deaths since the first case was reported. While numbers may be on the decline, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said the pandemic isn’t over.

“Our response never lessened,” said Nez. “We are still in that response mode. Mask mandate stays. I think we got much support from our Navajo people when they recognized we are not out of the pandemic.”

At the pandemic's start, the Navajo Nation made national news, first because of how hard it was hit, then because of how seriously leaders took the threat of COVID-19. Aside from the mask mandates, Navajo officials implemented a series of 57-hour weekend lockdowns, curfews, stay-at-home orders and checkpoints.

At one point, Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer were exposed and had to quarantine for two weeks.

“It was scary at the beginning,” said Nez. “We didn’t know what was going on. There was a lot of fear at the beginning.”

Virus spread: As the Navajo Nation confronts cruelties of COVID-19, its leaders say 'we will win'

Miss Navajo Nation Shaandiin Parrish and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez demonstrate how to wash their hands with a portable hand washing station at a COVID-19 food distribution event on the Navajo Nation in 2020.
Miss Navajo Nation Shaandiin Parrish and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez demonstrate how to wash their hands with a portable hand washing station at a COVID-19 food distribution event on the Navajo Nation in 2020.

Community groups step in

Throughout the pandemic, Nez and Lizer, along with their division directors, worked to give out food and supply boxes to tribal members. They also kept people informed through weekly town hall online sessions, where health care providers and officials discussed the status of COVID-19 on Navajo.

“It’s not over and it’s not enough to say we are in an endemic,” said Dr. Jill Jim, director of the Navajo Department of Health. “Our rates are still quite high. We are still in a pandemic. Although states are lifting restrictions, here on the Navajo Nation we are slowly lifting restrictions.”

Jim said the number may still seem high, but they are slowly coming down, and she emphasized the need for vaccines and boosters. She said officials are focusing on getting children vaccinated, especially with school in session.

Community outreach organizations like Chizh For Cheii were lifelines for people who were isolated at the beginning and during the pandemic. Chizh for Cheii has been delivering wood to elders in need during the winter for years, and it continued as the pandemic hit.

“Two years seem like it's gone by fast,” said Loren Anthony, who founded Chizh for Cheii a decade ago. “It’s been on the go almost every day. With that, you get that high from being on the front line to helping the elders to helping the community. It makes you feel good to be out there.”

People wait in line at the Dr. Guy Gorman Senior Care Home to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on the Navajo Nation in Chinle on Dec. 18, 2020.
People wait in line at the Dr. Guy Gorman Senior Care Home to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on the Navajo Nation in Chinle on Dec. 18, 2020.

Anthony said he remembers a time when the pandemic was still new. Not much was known about it and it was a concern for him and his crew. Although fearful for themselves, they were also worried about the vulnerable population they served, the elders.

To ensure that each of the Chizh for Cheii crew were responsible and did not take any chances, they made a pact with one another to be extra careful, to avoid traveling or going to gatherings, and to stay within their own group. Being extra cautious worked.

“I told my group that we don't know what we are dealing with,” said Anthony. “We have no clue what this virus is about and we have no idea what is the root of the cause, and what we can do to protect ourselves.”

Since Chizh for Cheii had worked with elders already, Anthony said the organization had gained people's trust over the years. When they would deliver wood, the elders weren’t as reluctant as they were with organizations that had just formed in response to COVID-19 and were newly dropping off supplies. The relationship between Chizh for Cheii and elders was and still is a lifeline.

“It got creepy for the elders because other organizations would come through bringing them stuff and they had no idea who they were,” said Anthony. “So we would have to show them what was going on, because a lot of the elders don't have internet or Facebook or anything like that.”

The Pandemic: How COVID-19 struck the heart of the Navajo Nation and how people fought back

Members of AmeriCorps form a chain to prepare bags of flour to be given out to members of the Chinle Chapter at a distribution site at Blue Gap in Chinle, Ariz. on the Navajo Nation on Dec. 9, 2020.
Members of AmeriCorps form a chain to prepare bags of flour to be given out to members of the Chinle Chapter at a distribution site at Blue Gap in Chinle, Ariz. on the Navajo Nation on Dec. 9, 2020.

A unified response

Nez has always emphasized the need to be surrounded by public health officials to help guide the response to the pandemic the past two years. He said guidance from public health officials has always been taken seriously and that’s why mask mandates are still in place, among other things. He said the Navajo Nation has become a model of how to fight COVID-19.

“People need to look at Navajo,” said Nez. “Open your eyes, look at what Navajo has done. Yes, we went through a surge this past couple of months, but you compare the number of people who caught the virus and how many of those didn't end up in the hospitals. It shows these protocols work. Vaccines also work.”

Navajo health officials have made a point of reporting the number of people who recovered from the virus, a number that had reached 51,080 this week.

On Tuesday, two years into the pandemic, tribal health officials reported one new COVID-19 case and one recent death. No deaths were reported over a four-day stretch last week.

Navajo officials began testing early and have administered 503,549 COVID-19 tests. Of those, 52,825 were positive, according to the Navajo Department of Health, in coordination with the Navajo Epidemiology Center and the Navajo Area Indian Health Service.

Dr. Daniel Mays had first come to Gallup Indian Medical Center as a fellow under the University of California San Francisco’s Health, Equity, Action and Leadership Initiative. Since 2015, the HEAL Initiative has served over 25,000 Navajo patients annually, and supported 165 health care workers through its two-year fellowship program. Mays had split his fellowship between GIMC and another hospital in Rwanda.

When comparing both sites and their response to COVID-19 over the two years, Mays said both the Navajo Nation and the Rwandan government were excellent at attentiveness, response, coordination and communication.

“The communication from the Navajo government was excellent and really changed our ability to respond to this pandemic,” said Mays.

Mays said not having a unified response to the pandemic, as was the case in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, the three states that border the Navajo Nation, contributed to the spread of COVID-19.

“But you go further into true disparities that are historical, and entrenched all the way back to historical trauma that goes back 150 years ago,” said Mays. “You take all of that together, and you have a more chronic state of stress and inflammation that comes from social inequality. That’s right for covid to cause havoc, because covid likes to set inflammation off.”

The Navajo Nation’s political response and its efforts to get everyone informed continues to make a difference, as is clear to anyone who travels to Navajo Nation or surrounding border towns, where people continue to mask up, said Mays. This he said, was the result of effective messaging.

“Imagine what if everyone throughout the country did what the Navajo Nation did,” said Nez. “We’d be out of this pandemic.”

Arlyssa Becenti covers Indigenous affairs for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send ideas and tips to arlyssa.becenti@arizonarepublic.com.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Navajo leaders say their COVID-19 response has worked