PHOENIX – After weeks of grim news as the pandemic tore through the Navajo Nation, the curve of positive COVID-19 cases has begun to flatten, President Jonathan Nez said Thursday.
The rate of hospitalizations peaked April 25, Nez reported during a town hall on Facebook Live, nearly a month ahead of the mid-May date projected to be the peak by the Navajo Area Indian Health Service projection rate.
“We did what it took, working together, all of us,” Nez said. “You stayed home, and that’s what brought these numbers – and the curve flattened.”
For weeks, the Navajo Nation has issued curfews and weekend-long lockdowns in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. An eighth curfew has been called for this weekend.
As of Thursday, there were 4,944 confirmed cases on the reservation, according to the Navajo Department of Health. But while the rates are slowing, Nez expressed concern that the tribe could witness a spike in positive cases as cities bordering the reservation begin to reopen businesses. He was especially concerned after witnessing the crowds across the state over Memorial Day weekend.
“It is most important, very important that we stay home,” Nez said. “But now is not the time to go to the big cities. Now is not the time to be vacationing. What affects us here in the Navajo affects everyone across the nation.”
Nez pledged to continue Navajo Nation’s high testing rate. Tribal officials administered more than 32,000 tests – more than 15 percent of Navajos living on the reservation, a per capita rate that exceeds some states and countries.
Additionally, Nez said, the tribe is receiving up to 30,000 more tests and setting up new testing centers, including one held Friday at Tuba City High School.
The Navajo Nation reported Friday that another 57-hour weekend lockdown will begin on Friday, May 29, at 8:00 p.m. until Monday, June 1, at 5:00 a.m. This will be the eighth weekend lockdown that also requires the closure of all businesses on the Navajo Nation.
“As we prepare for another weekend lockdown, please take care of one another. Ask family members who are elders or with underlying health conditions if they need help with errands, chores, or essential shopping prior to the lockdown. Also, ensure your family has enough food and water for the entire lockdown. Only one person in the household should be leaving home to complete shopping and errands. Always wear a face mask and stay six-feet from others,” said Vice President Myron Lizer.
However some researchers say more evidence is needed about the pandemic in the Navajo Nation. A story last week in The Navajo Times quoted Johnnye Lewis said the nation had not yet reached a plateau. Lewis is director of the UNM’s Community Environmental Health Program and co-director of the Navajo Birth Cohort Study at the UNM METALS Center. She has worked with a team of partners on Navajo for over 30 years studying the health impacts of exposure to uranium and other heavy metals.
“We’re not at the point where we can say that this has leveled at all,” said Lewis. “We would really have to see a significant drop — a stable rate of zero to a handful of cases per day for many days running. That’s a plateau.”
Also Thursday, the Hopi Tribe and Tohono O’odham Nation received about $1.2 million in pandemic relief from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has hit many Tribal communities, particularly in rural areas, very hard,” HRSA Administrator Tom Engels said in a statement. “By directing new resources to these areas, we are hoping to make a difference that will result in fewer new infections of this pernicious virus.”
Despite the increased monetary aid, Nez criticized the federal government for unequal distribution of funds to tribes and how late the funds arrived.
“I’m sorry to say to the federal government, that these numbers are because of the Navajo Nation and friends of the Navajo working together – the Hollywood stars, those individuals who donated,” Nez said. “That’s the resilience of our people and our friends who help.”
He called on Navajos to “shift their focus to petitioning Congress” and demand “that (Native American) nations need to be assisted to become more equal to the rest of the United States population.”
As the nation looks at another weekend curfew and shelter-in-place orders, Navajo chapters will continue to pass out donations of food, water and other supplies locally.
Nez commended first responders, police officers, volunteers and everyone on the front lines for their hard work.
“You helped flatten this curve by working together,” he said. “It makes me proud to be right on the front lines with you. You inspire me. You inspire me to fight harder for the Navajo people. … You are all warriors. Thank you.”