Navajo Situation 'Dire' As COVID-19 Cases Continue To Climb

By Emma Whitford
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Law360 (April 10, 2020, 10:15 PM EDT) -- The Navajo Nation in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico — with the largest Native American reservation in the U.S. — is facing a "dire emergency" because of the COVID-19 pandemic and is in need of expedited federal funding, the nation's president said Friday.

President Jonathan Nez spoke Friday to Law360 from his home in Window Rock, Arizona, as the nation confirmed 109 new positive cases and two deaths in two days across the 350,000-member tribe. The Navajo Nation had 597 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 22 related deaths as of Friday, across eight counties. 

President Donald Trump last month signed a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus package including over $10 billion for tribes, but Nez said the Navajo Nation still is spending its own money on supplies for first responders and health care workers and to enforce curfews.

"We've got to reach into our own pocket for this effort and I guarantee we've got all of our receipts because whatever how much of this money that we've spent, we're going to submit to the federal government for reimbursement," he told Law360.

"Every leader of this country… is doing their best to get the supplies and the needed resources from the federal government for their constituents," he added. "And the Navajo Nation and the 500-plus tribes are doing the same thing. It just feels like we're being pitted against each other for a finite resource."

Tribal leaders indicated this month that they need more flexibility in how they can use the federal funding allocated through the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act signed March 27.

The act focuses on paying back coronavirus-related expenses rather than addressing revenue losses, which is particularly challenging for tribes because they lack the tax base state and local governments have.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

In a March 31 press release on the tribal CARES funding, the BIA said tribes will be reimbursed through the Treasury Department and in consultation with the Department of the Interior and tribal governments to "ensure that the funds will be allocated effectively to tribes most in need of critical aid."

As of Friday, the Indian Health Service website showed the Navajo region accounts for about half of its positive COVID-19 cases: 406 of 816. The region is also leading in testing, according to the IHS.

The IHS collects data from its own facilities; reporting by tribal and urban health centers is voluntary, according to the IHS website. A Navajo Nation spokesperson said Friday that its total is likely higher than the IHS total because the nation's count includes tribal facilities. 

Nez said Friday that "the multigenerational people who live under one roof is [a] contributing factor of the spread. What we're trying to do here on Navajo is put in place isolation sites, quarantine sites, so if someone were to test positive they would have somewhere to go.

"The other factor in Indian Country is we are a social people, right?" Nez continued. "Shaking hands, hugging is part of our culture and part of showing respect to one another. And we have family gatherings. Not just the immediate families but extended families, clans." 

In a letter Wednesday, a coalition of 10 tribal organizations from across the country asked Senate and congressional leaders to allocate more than $8 billion to the Indian health system ahead of the next federal relief package, including $1.125 billion for hospitals and health clinics.

"The number of confirmed cases in Indian Country is likely underreported given a significant shortage of available testing kits, but also because of a critical shortage of medical supplies like respiratory swabs used to collect the COVID-19 specimen," wrote the groups, which include the National Indian Health Board and Inter Tribal Association of Arizona. Facilities across the country "have either completely depleted, or are dangerously close to depleting, necessary supplies."

There are reportedly just 33 intensive care units in Indian Country, according to the letter. Tribe members have disproportionate rates of underlying conditions that increase COVID-19 vulnerability such as diabetes and respiratory illness, the groups added.

In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Navajo Nation, Nez implemented a 57-hour one-weekend curfew from 8 p.m. Friday, April 10, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 13.

The weekend curfew builds on a nightly 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew that took effect on March 29. It does not apply to essential workers with documentation from their employers, according to a Thursday press release.

The weekend of April 10 was also designated "Navajo Nation Family Prayer Weekend" to encourage families to pray together for loved ones and health care workers, the nation said.

Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer are both in self-quarantine as a precaution after coming into contact with a first responder who has COVID-19, Nez confirmed Friday.

The Navajo Nation instituted a state of emergency on March 13 and reported its first positive case of COVID-19 on March 17 — a 46-year-old man from the Chilchinbeto, Arizona, community.

--Additional reporting by Andrew Westney. Editing by Bruce Goldman.

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