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'Much More Dire': Navajo Nation COVID-19 Cases Surge Again

LAUREN GILGER: Over the weekend, the State Department of Health Services reported more than 12,000 new cases of COVID-19 in Arizona. Saturday and Sunday earned the dismal distinction of ranking in the top five daily case reports this year. And today, 1,567 more have been added to the total confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic. And Monday numbers are often lower than average as weekend reporting lags.

Hospitalizations continue rising as well today, with over 3,000 suspected patients for the first time since late July. Overall, ICU bed use is now at 92%, matching the highest level since the pandemic began.

And last week, the Navajo Nation saw one of the most severe spikes in reported cases since the beginning of the pandemic as well. The office of President Jonathan Nez reported nearly 1,400 new cases between Sunday and Saturday of last week and 19 COVID-related deaths. President Nez issued a declaration of disaster, requesting aid from Washington, which is pending White House approval. In an effort to contain this wave of the outbreak, Nez has  extended an existing lockdown through Dec. 28 and continued to impose the 57-hour weekend curfews that had been enforced earlier in the year. Navajo Times Reporter Cindy Yurth joins us now to bring us up to speed. Good morning, Cindy.

CINDY YURTH: Good morning.

GILGER: So, Cindy, what is this spike being attributed to? The Navajo Nation had done a lot of work earlier in the summer to tamp this down and seemed like it had gotten sort of a handle on the virus spread there. What's going on?

YURTH: Well, I think the Thanksgiving holiday, of course, contributed. The contact tracers are saying that, that the little rodeos and roping events that have not been shut down around the nation are spreaders. Religious gatherings, family gatherings, and then also there are quite a few cases from men who go off the reservation to work construction or on the railroad, come back — young, healthy people, asymptomatic — spread it to their entire families before they even know it.

GILGER: Yeah, yeah. In a Zoom conference last Thursday, Navajo Nation President Nez said that this wave is, quote, "much more dire and more severe than before." Why might that be, Cindy?

YURTH: I'm not really sure. I think there's, there's some of course, COVID fatigue. People are getting tired of always wearing masks and not gathering. It's getting cold, so the elders need firewood. So people need to cut wood, visit the elders. People are staying inside more. So I think it's the same reasons that it's more severe around the entire country.

GILGER: Let's talk also about the medical resource kind of situation there. The president also talked about concerns there about healthcare providers having to make difficult decisions in terms of providing medical treatment at this point because the rise in cases is so severe. What are you hearing from healthcare's officials on the Navajo Nation and surrounding areas? What are, what are people concerned about? Are they at capacity at this point?

YURTH: Saturday, we reached 100% capacity for ICU beds. There are still some regular beds that can be kind of upgraded. Shiprock is in dire straits as far as nursing staff. There's a 50% vacancy at their hospital on the nursing staff. And a really scary thing is the oxygen supply is getting low. And of course, that's how you treat the really critical cases.

GILGER: Yeah. Final question for you then, Cindy. President Nez, as we mentioned earlier, requested aid from Washington via a disaster declaration. This, of course, requires approval from the White House. What is the status of that request, and what kind of difference do you think it would make if it was granted?

YURTH: We haven't heard anything yet on that request. I'm not sure how fast they could get the resources out here, even if it's approved. We need everything as of yesterday, but, you know, it certainly can't hurt.

GILGER: All right. That is Cindy Yurth with the Navajo Times joining us this morning for the latest on the spread of COVID on the Navajo Nation. Cindy, thank you so much for the time.

YURTH: Thank you.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.