Amid dire coronavirus warning, Navajo Nation 'hunkered down,' tribal president says

NM Gov. Grisham said she feared the coronavirus could “wipe out” tribal nations.

April 01, 2020, 3:21 PM

Just days after New Mexico’s governor warned President Trump that she feared the coronavirus could “wipe out” tribal nations, the president of the Navajo Nation told ABC News he believes aggressive measures being taken now will help contain the disease.

“We have a shelter-in-place here in Navajo Nation and have a curfew, and we are doing our best to slow down the spread or even stop the spread of coronavirus,” said Jonathan Nez, who was elected president of the tribal nation in 2018. “People are already in their houses and hunkered down.”

PHOTO: Jonathan Nez addresses a crowd after he's sworn in as president of the Navajo Nation, Jan. 15, 2019, in Fort Defiance, Ariz.
Jonathan Nez addresses a crowd after he's sworn in as president of the Navajo Nation, Jan. 15, 2019, in Fort Defiance, Ariz.
Felicia Fonseca/AP, FILE

Nez said the shelter-in-place order is similar to those in a number of states now, advising residents to stay at home but allowing them out for necessities. “Curfew is a pretty much a lock-down from 8 p.m. on,” he said, noting officials are monitoring it with roadblocks.

The latest figures show 174 people have tested positive and seven have died in the tribal territory that spans portions of three western states and has a population of more than 250,000. Officials in New Mexico and Arizona have both expressed concerns about the ability of the Navajo Nation to contain an outbreak. This week the Arizona National Guard reportedly flew in doctors and supplies and helped set up a make-shift hospital with 50 beds.

On a call with President Trump and other governors, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she was seeing "incredible spikes" of coronavirus cases in Navajo Nation.

"I'm very worried, Mr. President," Grisham said Monday, according to a recording of the call obtained by ABC News. "The rate of infection, at least on the New Mexico side — although we've got several Arizona residents in our hospitals — we're seeing a much higher hospital rate, a much younger hospital rate, a much quicker go-right-to-the-vent[ilator] rate for this population. And we're seeing doubling in every day-and-a-half," she said.

PHOTO: New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham confirmed a new coronavirus infection that has no apparent link to travel, March 18, 2020, during a news conference on the floor of the state House of Representatives in Santa Fe, N.M.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham confirmed a new coronavirus infection that has no apparent link to travel, March 18, 2020, during a news conference on the floor of the state House of Representatives in Santa Fe, N.M.
Morgan Lee/AP, FILE

There is reason for concern, according to Hilary Tompkins, the former solicitor for the U.S. Department of the Interior, which serves the federal trustee for Native American tribes.

“The Native American population is particularly vulnerable not only due to underlying health disparities and high poverty rates, but also because many Indian reservations lack basic, modern day amenities such as running water, access to the internet, and connection with the electrical grid, which are vital during a pandemic,” Tompkins told ABC News.

Tompkins, a member of the Navajo Nation, said access to full-service healthcare is lacking during optimal conditions.

“These factors create a perfect storm for the virus to devastate tribal communities, which we are witnessing right now with my tribe, the Navajo Nation,” she said. “Our federal trustee must act quickly to support tribal leaders in their fight against the coronavirus in order to save the lives of First Americans.”

The outbreak of the virus in the reservation is believed to have spread at an evangelical church rally in Chilchinbeto, Arizona, on March 7, according to a Los Angeles Times report. The Navajo Nation government declared a state of emergency on March 13, one week later, before ultimately issuing a reservation-wide shelter-in-place order for all residents on March 20.

PHOTO: Members of an Arizona National Guard unit load medical supplies into a helicopter for delivery to the remote Navajo Nation town of Kayenta, hit hard by the coronavirus, to build a temporary hospital and resupply clinics, March 31, 2020, in Phoenix.
Members of an Arizona National Guard unit load medical supplies into a helicopter for delivery to the remote Navajo Nation town of Kayenta, hit hard by the coronavirus, to build a temporary hospital and resupply clinics, March 31, 2020, in Phoenix.
Ross D. Franklin/AP

"In a short period of time, COVID-19 has arrived on the Navajo Nation and the number of cases are increasing at a high rate across the Nation," the order said. "The purpose of the closure is to allow the Navajo Nation as a whole to isolate and quarantine."

President Nez told ABC News he believes the tribal response is working.

“We're really getting out the information, letting people know to take care of themselves so that we don't have a large spike here at Navajo Nation,” Nez said. “We’re doing our best to educate people. We have our healthcare professionals going door to door.”

What to know about coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the U.S. and worldwide: coronavirus map

This report was featured in the Thursday, April 2, 2020 episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.

"Start Here" offers a straightforward look at the day's top stories in 20 minutes. Listen for free every weekday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the ABC News app or wherever you get your podcasts.

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