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Navajo Nation reflects on its battle against COVID-19

The Navajo Nation has gone from having one the highest COVID-19 infection rates per capita, to now having one of the highest vaccination rates.
Posted at 11:06 AM, Jun 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-22 13:06:48-04

The numbers don't lie.

"We're about 70, over 70% of our Navajo people fully vaccinated," Jonathan Nez, President of the Navajo Nation said.

The Navajo Nation is in a far better state than it was when Newsy spoke with the tribe last summer. 

"So when we say we got hit hard, it's not an understatement at all. It has just been constant," Dr. Loretta Christensen, Chief Medical Officer of the Navajo Area Indian Health Service said.

Twelve months on, the tribe has gone from having one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates per capita, to now having one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. On some days, zero new cases or deaths are being reported by the tribe. So how did it get here?

"It's not about individualism. It's about the greater good. It's about protecting your family, your community and here on the Navajo Nation, your homeland," Nez said.

President Jonathan Nez of the Navajo Nation says the tribe's community-centered mindset has been just as essential in reaching this point as its strict public health measures and lockdowns.

"We had some very long lockdowns, 57-hour weekend lockdowns," Nez said. "It is because of the Navajo people taking on and accepting these pretty tough protocols that we were able to get to where we’re at today."

Health officials for the tribe report that more than 95 percent of the vaccine doses it has received since December have been administered. 

"Most of the people that show up now say my sister begged me, my grandma bugged me. I'm tired of being the last person in my family who hasn't got a shot yet," Dr. Chris Percy with the Northern Navajo Medical Center said. "It's getting to be less and less of a special thing, and more and more just part of the way we do care every day."

"I truly believe that those that want it have received the vaccine thus far. But there of course, there are people that are not wanting to take the vaccine, and it's their choice, and we're not going to force them," Nez said.

But some measures are not as optional.

Despite new CDC recommendations for the relaxing of some mask mandates, Navajo Nation officials say that won't be happening anytime soon. Masks will continue to be required on the Navajo Nation even if you are fully vaccinated, as tribal leaders say they don’t want a repeat of last year.

"You just don't know who's vaccinated, you know? Unless you want to ask for a vaccination card, but we're not going to do that.  So it's best that we keep the mask mandate on especially when we reopen our Navajo Nation to our visitors," Nez said.

As the tribe pushes for life without COVID, officials say they are working to determine how to address longstanding infrastructure issues that left them so vulnerable to begin with. Community activists and first responders say a lot of these issues are often traced back to a lack of running water, access to food and electricity.

"So those types of things were always there before. They're still here today. And they'll be there tomorrow. And these, these things are just part of the system that have been lacking for our people," Loren Anthony, Founder of Chizh for Cheii said.

For 10 years Loren Anthony’s nonprofit, Chizh for Cheii, has been delivering firewood to Navajo elders in remote rural areas. That work has now come to include food and water delivery.

"We're still trying to catch our breath. We're still working with so many people. A lot of elderlies," Eric Trevizo, a firefighter for the Navajo Nation Fire and Rescue Services, station 22.

Work that has many first responders going the extra mile every single week. 

"We try to do roughly about 1,448 food boxes to the communities. Not only that, we step up, we do hand sanitizers, home cleaning supplies," Trevizo said.

At the top of the agenda of the Navajo government: Shoring up resources for the Indian Health Service system. 

"Our advocacy now is to fully fund IHS so that we are equipped and prepared for any type of future bugs that come into the nation," Nez said.

This story was originally published by Meg Hilling with Newsy.