Five days tells the coronavirus story: Caseload jumps from two to 26

Police check point near Chilchinbito, Navajo Nation. (Photo via Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President)

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye

Researchers estimate that the undetected cases are “11 times more than has been officially reported"

The number of positive COVID-19 cases in the Navajo Nation grew from two on Tuesday night to 26 Saturday night. Five days.

Around the world the number of active cases continued to expand, according to Johns Hopkins University. The count now stands at 329,299 cases, 14,376 deaths and 95,656 people who have recovered.

There are 15,219 cases in the U.S. reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But those numbers have not been updated since Friday and it’s most certainly significantly higher, especially when factoring in unreported cases. Researchers estimate that the undetected cases are “11 times more than has been officially reported.”

(Related story: Indian Country's COVID-19 syllabus)

In the Navajo Nation, 25 of the cases are in Arizona, and 18 from the Kayenta service unit, four are from the Chinle service unit, and three are from the Tuba City service unit. The last one is from the Crownpoint service unit in New Mexico.

There are “no confirmed deaths related to COVID-19 for residents of the Navajo Nation” as of Saturday, according to the news release. On March 20, Navajo Area Indian Health Service Public Affairs Liaison Jenny Notah told Indian Country Today that “IHS has received no reports of deaths of an IHS patient in the Navajo Area due to COVID-19.”

However, today the Navajo Times reported that a Chilchinbeto Church of the Nazarene Zone Rally that took place on March 7 was attended by individuals or their family members who later tested positive for COVID-19.

“Before they could be tested, two people — one in LeChee, Arizona and one in Chilchinbeto — died of respiratory symptoms, according to local sources. The LeChee victim had attended the rally; it is uncertain whether the Chilchinbeto victim did,” wrote reporter Krista Allen. There were more people at the rally from six chapters, or community centers, from the western region of the Navajo Nation.

Indian Health Service and tribal epidemiologist teams continue to investigate “the degree of contact of contagious individuals and the subsequent degree of exposure is unknown.”

President Nez said: “There are people who are testing negative for COVID-19 and that is good news, but there are still many more tests that the Navajo Department of Health and the Navajo Area IHS are waiting for results and confirmation.” He continued to emphasize on tribal radio that people need to stay home.

“Everyone needs to stay home, that’s how we will start to beat this virus. To prevent a massive health crisis, every person must remain home,” said President Jonathan Nez. “We know some may need food, medicine, or other essential items, but beyond that we shouldn’t have anyone traveling or going out into the public. This includes public gatherings and meetings.”

On Saturday, a stay-at-home order was issued and requires all Navajo Nation residents to stay home and isolated. All non-essential businesses were to close, too. The small community of Chilchinbeto, Arizona, where most of the cases came from, had a shelter-in-place order before the current stay-at-home order. Chilchinbeto residents, especially elders, received care packages and resources from first responders like firewood, water, and coal.

The Navajo Nation Police Department set up “community checkpoints” near the Chilchinbeto region to limit and educate travelers to stay home.

Two-part video: Indian Country Today partnered with KUYI-FM, Hopi radio to broadcast a special report on COVID-19 and how it can impact the Hopi people. Patty Talahongva, executive producer, hosted the program that included the following guests: Chairman Timothy Nuvangyaoma, Vice Chairman Clark Tenakhongva, Dr. Darren Vicenti and the CEO of Hopi Health Care, Mose Herne, Seneca. Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Washington editor, also joined the program to talk about the impact nationwide in Indian Country. Two cases were reported on the Navajo Nation during the time of this broadcast. 

The Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming said it was dealing with its first case.

“As we investigate this case and hear more about the other cases in the county we have good reason to believe that there are many more cases in the community,” Dr. Paul Ebbert of the Wind River Family and Community Health Center said in the tribe’s announcement Saturday morning. The elder is a woman and from the Ethete area. She is stable and receiving medical treatment.

“We are gravely concerned about the health threat that COVID-19 poses to Northern Arapaho members and the larger Wind River Indian Reservation,” Chairman Lee Spoonhunter of the Northern Arapaho Business Council said in a news release. “... Now is the time for the Arapaho people to look out for each other. With our prayers and traditional way of life, and by following common sense health precautions, we will emerge from this challenge stronger than before.”

In Idaho, Chairman Ladd Edmo of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes announced today that the tribe does not have any confirmed COVID-19 cases among its tribal citizens.

However, there was a confirmed case near the exterior borders of their reservation and that resulted in a partial tribal government shutdown.

“Full time, part-time, and temporary employees will receive their benefits and salary for two weeks during this time of self-isolation. Further assessments will determine if extensions will be made,” Edmo said.

If the time came of a confirmed case on their reservation, Edmo said they will implement stricter and protective measures to protect the community. “This would include ‘stay at home’ and regular reassessments of Tribal reduced services,” he said.

The casino closed Saturday night. The chairman said the Fort Hall Business Council and casino management weighed the pros and cons “between the public health of the community versus the long-term tribal government services that will be affected in the future.”

“The Council and Casino Management carefully weigh the outcomes, Comparison of tribal casinos to Las Vegas casino is difficult because private casino industries are for-profit, versus tribal casinos which go directly to needed governmental services,” Edmo said. “The impact to any revenue will impact Tribal government general fund programs.”

The casino and hotel management team want to keep employees employed as long as possible “rather than letting them go.”

“They will reassign employees to conduct other tasks, within the management’s ability and limitations from the National Indian Gaming regulations,” Edmo said. “Tribal governmental employees will also be reassigned similarly.”

(Related: Indian Country's COVID-19 syllabus)

Across the country casinos have started to notify employees of furloughs. Victor Rocha, publisher of the Penchanga.Net, posted that 92 percent of the country’s casinos are now closed for business. Another story on his site, said the Pechanga tribe was expected to issue furlough notices to employees.

“It's eerie to go by the closed casino,” Rocha wrote on Facebook. “It's much more than just a place to gamble. It's a place that gives sustenance to me, my family, my tribe and our community. I know we'll come out of this eventually. Until then, prayers and self-isolation. May the Creator watch over you.”

Columbia University researchers told the New York Times that “stringent measures to limit social contact are needed to significantly stem the tide of illness and death in the coming months.”

And if the country cuts the transmission of the virus in half, “some 650,000 people might become infected in the next two months.”

Washington emergency declared

President Donald J. Trump Sunday declared that a major disaster exists in the state of Washington and he ordered federal assistance to the state and tribes.

“Federal funding is also available to State, tribal, and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations for emergency protective measures, including direct Federal assistance, for all areas in the State of Washington impacted by COVID-19,” the order said.

The president also ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ship mobile hospital centers to the hard-hit states of Washington, California and New York amid the coronavirus pandemic. For New York, that would mean another 1,000 hospital beds.

Trump is also revealing for the first time the number of respirators and other personal protective equipment sent to the hard-hit states by the federal government. It comes as state and local leaders have appealed on the federal government to provide far more, and as Trump has held off on using his fully authorities under the Defense Production Act to marshal the private sector's capabilities.

Trump says it's up to states to try to get the materials first. He says: "We're sort of a backup for states."

Trump says he's also giving governors in those three states a chance to call up their national guard, keeping it under local control but providing federal funding.

The White House said it is urging commercial labs to prioritize the testing of hospital patients as they work to clear a backlog of tests for the coronavirus.

Vice President Mike Pence says the Department of Health and Human Services will issue formal guidance Monday, but that the federal government is encouraging all labs to "prioritize inpatient testing."

Pence says the government hopes to have the backlog of existing tests — a milestone the White House hoped to reach on Monday — cleared by the middle of the week.

The White House is encouraging those without symptoms against seeking testing, warning it depletes already scarce supplies of personal protective equipment for healthcare providers.

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Mark Trahant and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the Washington editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com

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