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On Hard-Hit Navajo Nation, Demand For COVID-19 Vaccines Is High

COVID-19 vaccination events on the Navajo Nation are being met with overwhelming demand. 

In a  livestream video this week from a vaccination event at Sage Memorial Hospital on the Navajo Nation, incident commander Chris West said 100 cars were lined up when the site opened in the morning and vaccines had already run out by midday.

“Every week we’re falling short of the allotments that we need to give to our community. It’s really nice to see our community and their interest in coming out to get the vaccine," West said.

The Navajo Nation has been extremely hard-hit by COVID-19. The rate of death from the virus on the reservation is three times higher than Arizona’s rate. Tribal communities have  historic reasons for being distrustful of vaccines and government health programs, but many Navajo appear to be anxious to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

"I've heard stories of people living in Albuquerque and Phoenix leaving at 1 o'clock in the morning to get in line here on the Navajo Nation to get their vaccination," Navajo Nation president Jonathan Nez said in a Wednesday  town hall video

The Navajo Nation’s  seven-day average through Wednesday shows a decline in COVID-19 cases — from a high of 230 on Jan. 12. to 120 on Jan. 27.

Nez says he’s pleased with the direction, but he’s hesitant to say that it is a downward trend. 

“All the state’s around us were at their all-time highs, and we’re like a little island. Navajo Nation, a little island, of all the red around us. Of course you know it’s going to come in," Nez said.

Nez also says that although they want to open up, the schools will stay online as they begin to vaccinate teachers, and consider student safety as well.

Shelter-in-place orders have been in place on the Navajo Nation since mid-November, but Nez plans to ease some restrictions this weekend to allow for more mass vaccination events. 

The Navajo Nation is organizing its own vaccine distribution through the federal Indian Health Service, separately from state-run distribution programs in Arizona or New Mexico. The portion of the reservation in Utah will work with Utah's health department on vaccine distribution. Vaccines remain in limited supply nationwide, so tribal leadership is advocating to get additional supply from the federal government. 

Fewer than 200,000 people live on the Navajo Nation. As of Wednesday, the tribe  had administered about 38,000 shots. Nez says 65% of the Navajo Nation's COVID-19 vaccine supply has been used so far.

→  Q&AZ: What You Need To Know About Getting The Coronavirus Vaccine In Arizona

Katherine Davis-Young is a senior field correspondent. She has produced work for NPR, New England Public Radio, Southern California Public Radio, PRI's The World, Washington Post, Reuters and more.She has a master’s degree in radio journalism from the USC Annenberg School of Journalism.She lives in central Phoenix with her husband, two daughters, and ill-behaved cat and dog. Her side-passions include photography, crosswords and hot sauce.