Signs of hope in the hard-hit Navajo Nation where COVID-19 cases are on the decline

The Navajo Nation experienced one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates per capita in the United States, forcing the poverty-stricken community to scramble to build hospital beds and raise money.
6:07 | 08/13/20

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Transcript for Signs of hope in the hard-hit Navajo Nation where COVID-19 cases are on the decline
red rocks where the navajo nation suffered one of the highest covid-19 infection rates per capita in the country, tonight a flicker of hope. Numbers here are on the decline. We have never gone through something like this in this magnitude before. Reporter: When cases started to rise in April, navajo president Jonathan nez listened to the scientists and ordered some of the strictest measures in the country, including a 57-hour weekend curfew and mandatory mask wearing. How many daily new cases were there, and how many new cases per day are there now? We were having days that were over 100 covid-19 positive cases a day. As of now this discussion, from yesterday to today, 22 new cases. I believe our lowest was seven a couple of days ago. You know, we had one of the most stringent public health orders in the country, and the navajo people saw that it worked. And now, not many people are complaining. Reporter: Yeah, I would say much more, much more stringent than the mask wearing was the curfew. I don't think there's anyplace like it in the country that had curfews nightly and over the weekends as well. We used our sovereign ability to govern ourselves, and that included these stringent public health orders. Things on the navajo nation are working. Reporter: Motels used to house and isolate the ill. The navajo nation's population of about 170,000 has access to only about 20 icu beds. We met a doctor who's practicing emergency medicine from the back of his car. But there were limits to what the team could do. So ems has just showed up, because the gentleman is telling the folks here that he's got shortness of breath, asthma. Reporter: The doctor is the co-founder of the health initiative at ucsf. He teamed up with the cope program. They established rounds at this motel in Gallup, New Mexico where the unsheltered and sick could go to get off the street and away from extended families. The headaches are bothering you. Yeah. Any blurry vision? Reporter: Amid the onslaught of covid infections, four motels were used as respiratory clinics. Dr. Eileen making her rounds of covid cases, her office in those bags. If you had told me weeks ago that I would be starting elderly patients in a room by themselves without family members and keeping them in a motel, closed up in a room, I would never have believed it. Reporter: But even the motels filled up. So they converted a gym into a we went back there in may, when the per capita rate of infection soared to that past of New York and New Jersey. Gallup, New Mexico reaching capacity. From what we're hearing, this could be the epicenter of covid in the country right now. Yes, you're totally right. Reporter: The poverty and lack of infrastructure in this area, spanning Arizona, new Mexico and Utah making it much worse. The navajo nation is larger than West Virginia, but 40% of the people who live here don't have electricity, and many don't have access to running water, which is why they need to pump water at wells like this. Grassroots efforts have worked to provide food and water. The hopi fund raising $5.7 million, setting up makeshift hand washing stations and distributing them around the reservation. It's one fix to address the hygiene issue. Reporter: In the vastness of the reservation, under the shadow of chimney butte is where the doctor grew up. Also without running water or she's now the only navajo emergency physician at this urgent care clinic in Winslow, Arizona. You're getting people pulling up to this parking lot that have to be intubated here, even though this is not technically an icu or hospital. It's an urgent care. She says the closest icu facility is at least an hour away by helicopter or three hours in an ambulance. Of course, it's no longer a hospital. And growing up, the doctor says she never saw medical professionals with a face like her own. I never saw a native-american as a nurse or a doctor. Sometimes there's a disconnect when language and cultures are not meeting. We know that just by studies and even by experience, we are not going to have the best health care. Reporter: She left her family and moved to an apartment an hour away to try to minimize the risk of infecting the group of people she's trying to save. My job is immensely hard, because I have such a connection to my people and my land. Our elders, our teachers, our protectors. They hold all of the key elements that we need to have a strong sense of identity. Reporter: Dorothy Scott was one of 11 people living in this traditional hut with her family when disease and death struck. As you were burying your one son who had just died from covid you heard that your husband had just died. I got a call that he pass away. Reporter: Of the 11 family members, eight were positive, two died. Those left behind were split into two rooms under strict quarantine. But for the first time in a week they were allowed out for that round of hugs. What do you hope for the days to I hope that the navajo people will continue to do the things that help bring the numbers down. Reporter: For "Nightline," I'm Matt Gutman.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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