Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics
newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
President Joe Biden’s 2023 State of the Union address
WATCH: Biden envisions hundreds of thousands more jobs to rebuild U.S. pride
By Associated Press
Live updates: State of the Union 2023
The state of our union, in 6 charts
By Jenna Cohen, Hannah Grabenstein, Joshua Barajas
By Justin Stabley
Lena I. Jackson
Lena I. Jackson
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.
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.
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.
After the so-called super spreader event in Chilchinbito, President Jonathan Nez put increasingly strict orders for social distancing in place, including weekend curfews.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You know, we're a vulnerable population.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you know any nurses that want to come work up here, we'd love to have them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We can't change history. We should just hopefully learn from it.
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.
I delivered some to Kayenta Health Center, and they have been wanting more masks.
Navajo delivering supplies to the most isolated residents.
We definitely see the need to make food and supplies like toilet paper and soap available during this time.
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.
And Navajo coming together in shared struggle.
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.
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.
Watch the Full Episode
Stephanie Sy is a PBS NewsHour correspondent and serves as anchor of PBS NewsHour West. Throughout her career, she served in anchor and correspondent capacities for ABC News, Al Jazeera America, CBSN, CNN International, and PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior to joining NewsHour, she was with Yahoo News where she anchored coverage of the 2018 Midterm Elections and reported from Donald Trump’s victory party on Election Day 2016.
Casey is a producer for NewsHour's digital video team.
Support Provided By: