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Navajo Nation, hit hard by COVID-19, comes together to protect its most vulnerable

COVID-19 is ripping through the Navajo Nation, infecting and killing people at rates that are above U.S. averages. Located across three states, the Navajo population is already vulnerable, with a high prevalence of underlying disease, a lack of infrastructure and limited access to care and supplies. Stephanie Sy reports on how the Navajo community has taken on the challenge of caring for its own.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Coronavirus infections and deaths are ripping through the Navajo Nation, located on three different states.

    With an already vulnerable population, coordinating care and information is not easy.

    As the "NewsHour"'s Stephanie Sy reports, the community has taken on the challenge of caring for their own people.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In Navajo country, COVID-19 found its grip at a religious revival event in early March in the upper western reaches of the reservation.

  • President Jonathan Nez:

    We have clan families that come all over the Navajo Nation to participate in this event. And, boy, it just took off like wildfire after that.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    After the so-called super spreader event in Chilchinbito, President Jonathan Nez put increasingly strict orders for social distancing in place, including weekend curfews.

  • Becky Bizahaloni:

    I haven't even, personally myself, been able to hug my grandma. Stand at the door, drop off all the stuff on the porch, and I just wave at her. That's it.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    At least 52 people who live on Navajo Nation have died from COVID-19, including one of 18-year old welder Trevor Tacheene's relatives.

  • Trevor Tacheene:

    One person on the other side of my family has got it and has passed.

    I'm very concerned about it, because I have family members that are young and are susceptible to it. And it's scaring my mother and my father every time we go out.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Getting the message out about social distancing on the reservation was initially difficult. Nez broadcasts updates daily on Facebook, but many households lack quality Internet access.

    It's also not practical for many on the reservation to follow stay-at-home orders. Sprawling across three states with a population of more than 173,000, wide swathes of the Navajo Nation are energy, food, and health care deserts, and actual desert, with limited water.

  • Surgeon General Jerome Adams:

    We tell them to wash their hands, but a study showed 30 percent of the homes on Navajo Nation don't have running water.

  • President Jonathan Nez:

    You know, we're a vulnerable population.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    One in five Native Americans has diabetes. And there's a high prevalence of obesity, both underlying conditions that can make COVID-19 particularly dangerous.

    Even the younger people on Navajo Nation have worse health outcomes.

  • Diana Hu:

    We are seeing some patients that are not over 60 that are coming in with severe COVID illness, because — and they almost all have comorbid conditions.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Dr. Diana Hu has been working at the Tuba City Regional Health Care Center for more than 30 years. The pediatric ward, where she normally works, has been turned into a respiratory clinic, as has much of the hospital, since COVID-19 struck.

  • Diana Hu:

    It was actually almost like a tsunami when this first started in the middle of March, where we had, you know, nine or 10 people getting sick and a day that had to be flown out for tertiary care.

    We get maybe one or two a day, and it's real obvious when they're sick, unfortunately.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Many Native American hospitals are not equipped for multiple severe ventilator cases. For now, patients are airlifted to facilities in Phoenix and Flagstaff.

    But Dr. Hu and her colleagues are bracing for an overwhelming surge.

  • Diana Hu:

    If you know any nurses that want to come work up here, we'd love to have them.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    This week, the University of California-San Francisco, sent 14 nurses and seven physicians to Navajo Nation to help. The most pressing shortage has been personnel.

    And this thing has not peaked on the Navajo Nation.

  • Diana Hu:

    We're not sure. If you look at our statistics, which are per capita, it's outrageous.

    The biggest issue I think that we have with the federal government structure, the coordination is pitting tiny places like us against states, against other hospitals. And the coordination is being left up to the states, which is very difficult when you have something like the Navajo Nation.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Navajo Nation has one of the highest rates in the country of COVID-19 on a per capita basis, behind only New York and New Jersey.

    In Arizona, about 20 percent of deaths from COVID-19 have been Native Americans, when they make up only 5 percent of the state's population. The CARES Act granted $8 billion to stabilize tribal communities, but the more than 500 sovereign tribes had collectively asked for closer to $20 billion.

    The Navajo have been the worst affected, but other tribes are facing the same threat. In New Mexico, multiple Native Pueblo communities are seeing infection rates of coronavirus higher than big cities.

    And the Red Lake community in Minnesota declared medical martial law several weeks ago, containing their spread to one person.

    Back on Navajo lands, President Nez described the frustrating process of accessing federal funds.

  • President Jonathan Nez:

    It's taken too long. Here in Indian country, we're always — it seems to me we're always at the bottom of the list when it comes to federal resources.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The health disparities laid bare by COVID-19 have reverberated across the Navajo Nation since the time of European colonization.

    In 2009, the H1N1 flu was four times as deadly in Native peoples as it was in the general population. During the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, a similar story.

  • Diana Hu:

    We can't change history. We should just hopefully learn from it.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In recent days, vital resources have been delivered, rapid test kits that President Nez says can give results in less than an hour.

    The National Guard has brought in supplies, initially from its own stockpile of masks and other protective gear. And people are stepping up to fill the needs of their neighbors, Navajo sewing masks for front-line workers.

  • Jennifer James:

    I delivered some to Kayenta Health Center, and they have been wanting more masks.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Navajo delivering supplies to the most isolated residents.

  • Shandiin Herrera:

    We definitely see the need to make food and supplies like toilet paper and soap available during this time.

  • Kim Smith:

    We came across an elder who lives alone, and he has no food. So we packed extra, so that we're able to give, in case we run into this type of situation.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And Navajo coming together in shared struggle.

  • President Jonathan Nez:

    We're encouraging our elders to share their stories, the stories of our culture, our tradition, and our language, so that our young people don't remember this time as a scary moment.

    This is, in a way, what we have been praying for, to reunite families, to reunite couples, to hand down our language, our culture, tradition to the next generation.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    It may be an optimistic way of looking at a pandemic, but it's the stories the Navajo tell that have helped them endure.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Phoenix.

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