On March 15, the Navajo Nation downgraded from code red to orange, or from high to moderately high restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The downgrade came after the tribe beat back some of the nation’s highest per capita infection rates in December and January to among the lowest in March.
The tribe soon will be giving its code status another look, though.
A case of the United Kingdom, or B117, variant of COVID-19 was confirmed in a sample obtained in the western part of the reservation that extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The B117 variant has been detected throughout the United States. The Navajo Department of Health is working with states and other public health agencies to identify any more variant cases, Navajo President Jonathan Nez said.
“We shouldn’t panic, but we should be informed about this new development,” Nez said in a statement.
The Navajo person who caught the U.K. variant had been fully vaccinated more than a month before getting sick, Nez said in a live online town hall meeting Tuesday. “So you can still catch the variant even after your shots ...” Nez said. Contract tracing determined the variant did not spread beyond that person, said Navajo Health Director Dr. Jill Jim.
“This variant does spread more easily and more quickly than other variants,” said Dr. Laura Hammitt, with John Hopkins University. “This can lead to more cases, and more people who may need clinical care. The B117 variant also appears to cause more severe disease, and has been associated with an increased risk of hospitalization or death.”
That makes getting vaccinated that much more important.
“The vaccines trigger a broad immune response,” Hammitt said. “So even if the antibodies the body produces aren’t a perfect match to the B117 or other variants, they are still powerful enough to protect against severe disease and death.”
Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer also urged people to continue taking all the recommended precautions even after getting all the shots.
“I know we have to go to supermarkets and stores and whatnot, but continue to do that, please, be very mindful of where you're at and who you're around and just cognizant of your surroundings all the time,” Lizer said.
Capt. Brian Johnson, acting deputy area director, Navajo Area Indian Health Service, said personal responsibility is key to preventing another surge of disease.
“One of our themes that we've identified is 'Let's reach community immunity! Protect yourself. Protect your family. Protect your elders.'”
“And I think it's incumbent upon all of us,” Johnson said. “We're all responsible for looking out not only for ourselves, but looking out for our relatives, our neighbors, our elders, it's very important.”
He said people may feel as if officials are saying the same thing over and over.
“And in fact, we are because the actions that we can take as individuals have remained the same, and that includes washing our hands, wearing our masks, watching our distances from one another, and then also very, very important, getting vaccinated with COVID-19 vaccine,” Johnson said.
Johnson also praised the health care providers on the front lines, from housekeeping and infection control, to respiratory therapists, nurses, and physicians.
“All of these individuals, and many, many more play such an important role, not only to ensure that services are provided at our facilities and our healthcare facilities, but to make sure when you visit, you’re safe.” Johnson said. He also urged people with any symptoms to get tested either by appointment or at a mass testing.
Nez said the Navajo Nation Health Department, and the Indian Health Service, operating out of hospitals, clinics, and drive-up stations, are working to get people vaccinated.
Nez said as of Sunday, the Navajo Nation has given 205,000-plus shots.
“Our goal is to get to 250,000 by the end of March. That would be ideal,” Nez said. The Navajo Nation has some 300,000 enrolled members, with 173,000 of them living on the reservation.
Loretta Christensen, the chief medical officer for the Indian Health Service's Navajo-area service unit, said Monday that the tribe will start distributing free rapid home test kits in an effort to monitor the trajectory of the coronavirus.
The Navajo Nation has reported 30,064 cases of the coronavirus since the pandemic began, and 1,246 deaths.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.