How Navajo Nation curbed one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the country

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NAVAJO NATION (KTVX) — Just three months ago, the Navajo Nation experienced one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. Now, it’s a vastly different scene on the reservation as they hit a new milestone and the daily case count continues to decline.

After Navajo Nation reported its first case of COVID-19 on March 17, the daily case count rose quickly and reached its peak of 240 on May 14. The reservation houses more than 300,000 residents of the nation’s largest Native American tribe. But the area faces social and economic disparities that put its population at a higher risk for COVID-19. 

Residents have said in the past five months that Navajo Nation is a “food desert,” meaning that tribal members often have to drive long distances to buy groceries and stock up on food. In some areas, access to water and the internet is limited or even non-existent.

Health officials expressed concern about the area’s hospital capacity and relied on nearby hospitals to take on their overflow, which is no longer a possibility given the recent spikes in cases in nearby states. In April, Navajo Nation was in the top three largest COVID-19 hot spots in the U.S., trailing only New York and New Jersey.

Navajo Nation daily new COVID-19 cases (Courtesy: Navajo Times)

Tribal leaders acted swiftly, enacting a 57-hour weekend curfew that mandated residents stay home and visitors pass through. Leaders joined volunteers multiple times a week at food distribution centers to make sure residents had enough food and water during the weekend.

The messaging from leadership was clear: Wear your masks, wash your hands and maintain social distancing at all times. Employees with the Health Department even went door to door for their public health campaign. By mid-May, the daily case count started going down and has stayed down ever since.

“We’re very excited. We have a decrease in positive cases. Good job to Dineh (Navajo people). You all have done an outstanding job out there,” said Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer.

For the first time this past weekend, tribal leaders shortened the 57-hour weekend curfew to 32 hours.

“It’s almost like a reward, right? Let’s treat it as that, kind of like when you’re dieting. You have a little cheat day. You have a little sweet and it’s good for just one time and then you go back to the regimen that provides results,” said Lizer.

RELATED: Navajo Nation reissues weekend curfew as neighboring states experience spikes in COVID-19 cases

President Jonathan Nez encouraged residents not to become complacent and to use extra hours relieved from curfew to prepare for a possible second wave in the winter.

“What I mean by preparing is hauling wood, getting supplies to our family members, and starting to stock up because there’s so much uncertainty right now,” said Nez.

On Monday, officials celebrated a new milestone of 45 consecutive days with less than 100 daily new cases of COVID-19 and 10 straight days with less than 40.

However, tribal leaders said Navajo Nation is not in the clear just yet. Nez emphasized that COVID-19 cases are surging in surrounding states, causing concern for residents who normally travel to areas that are now hotspots for groceries and supplies.

“We will overcome COVID-19. We are all resilient, all five-finger beings. In Navajo – “Bíla’ashla’ii” … it means five-fingered beings. We’re all in this together,” Nez said in June. “It affects us on the Navajo Nation, it affects those of the Navajo Nation and vice versa.”

Nez and Lizer hold town hall meetings every Tuesday morning and Thursday evening on Facebook with updates on the reservation’s COVID-19 status.

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