Coronavirus reporting complicated by lack of street addresses on the Navajo Nation

(Courtesy of Rural Utah Project) A Plus Code sign on a home on the Navajo Nation in San Juan County, Utah, which serves as an alternative to a traditional street address.

The southern Utah community of Navajo Mountain technically has its own zip code, but it doesn’t get much use.

Residents who live near the base of the 10,300-foot mountain or in homes scattered across the sandstone mesas south of Lake Powell lack traditional street addresses. The public high school and chapter house — the Navajo Nation’s regional government office — use an Arizona zip code. Locals get their mail through post office boxes in Arizona.

In the past, the issue has created complications for voting registration and delays to emergency medical services. Now it’s causing problems for coronavirus reporting.

The 350-person community of Navajo Mountain is experiencing an outbreak of COVID-19, which, according to the Navajo Times, can be traced back to a church revival in Chinchilbeto, Ariz., on March 7 that was attended by members of the Navajo Mountain Alliance Church. The Chinchilbeto service became an epicenter of the outbreak on the northern Navajo Nation, which as of Sunday had 354 confirmed cases of the virus and 14 deaths.

San Juan County, Utah, where the majority of the Navajo Mountain residents live, had not yet reported any deaths from the coronavirus as of Monday. But multiple locals told The Salt Lake Tribune that at least two people — Douglas DeJolie, 58, and his mother Jean DeJolie, 81 — died in the hospital late last month after contracting the virus several weeks earlier.

Both the Navajo Times and KUER spoke with Holly DeJolie, Jean’s daughter, who told the tragic details of the pair’s visit to an area clinic and subsequent self-quarantine in the remote area along the Utah-Arizona border.

Kirk Benge, the director of the San Juan Public Health Department, said he is working with state and tribal authorities to confirm the details of the case.

“This may have been complicated by the lack of physical addresses,” Benge said. Typically, if someone from Salt Lake City is hospitalized in another city such as Denver, he explained, the case is easily counted in Utah. It’s more complicated when the address on hospital admission forms traces back to a zip code in a different state than the patient’s residence.

“We want to make sure we're not double counting cases,” Benge said. “We want to make sure that we're not counting someone as a Utah case while Arizona is also counting it as an Arizona case.”

The local Navajo Mountain clinic, which is run by the Utah Navajo Health System, is open only four days per week. The DeJolies were examined at an Indian Health Service clinic in Inscription House, Ariz., and both were later hospitalized in Arizona.

“We’re a sort of no man’s land,” said San Juan County Commissioner Willie Grayeyes, a resident of Navajo Mountain who said there are likely more confirmed cases of the virus than is reflected in the official county count.

Grayeyes has personal experience with the addressing issue. When he was running for commissioner in 2018, his opponents in the election accused him of being an Arizona resident, which led to a sheriff’s investigation and two lawsuits, both of which Grayeyes won. (The case is currently being appealed to the Utah Supreme Court.)

“We’re a very remote community,” he said, noting that the area is often lost in the shuffle of federal, state, county and tribal aid because of its unique geography. The DeJolies reportedly ran low on supplies during their self-quarantine, a problem which Grayeyes fears could be happening to people throughout Navajo Mountain.

“Right now, I’m sure families are limited on food provisions due to school closures, students being home and the limitation of travel,” Grayeyes said. “Whatever is left in the community stores has been cleaned out or is running low.”

Gary Rock, the principal at Navajo Mountain High School, said he and his staff have been working hard to get meals to the 30 high school students in the area and their siblings through a school bus delivery system.

“The school district is being incredibly supportive,” Rock said, adding that residents have been crafting creative responses to the outbreak.

“There's kind of a survival instinct in this community,” he said. “The nearest fire truck is 90 miles away. The nearest ambulance is 35 miles away. So our community has to be very self-reliant.”

The Navajo Nation helped fund a substantial order of food to assist with coronavirus relief efforts that was scheduled to arrive Tuesday, and volunteers were planning to help with deliveries. Additional relief fundraising is being organized by former Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch, whose grassroots GoFundMe campaign has brought in close to $400,000 for Navajo and Hopi families since it was started in mid-March.

There is also a creative solution underway for the zip code issue, though it will take longer to be implemented.

The Rural Utah Project, an advocacy group that registered thousands of San Juan County voters in 2018, noticed numerous inconsistencies in the county’s voter files caused by the lack of physical addresses. The organization partnered with Google last year to assign Plus Codes, an alternative to street addresses, to every structure on the Navajo Nation in Utah.

TJ Ellerbeck, Rural Utah Project’s executive director, said that about 700 of the 2,500 buildings identified for the project have received Plus Code signs so far, and health care providers have already used the system for deliveries of medical supplies.

“We started doing this project purely for voter registration purposes,” Ellerbeck said. “But the longer we’ve been doing it, we’ve seen the ways addresses make such a huge impact on people’s lives from package delivery to access to basic services — and especially health care. Being able to find where somebody lives makes a huge difference for all of those things.”

Navajo Mountain would have been receiving their Plus Code signs in April if it hadn’t been for the coronavirus-related delays, Ellerbeck added, a bitter irony considering the address problems already associated with the outbreak.

The dangers of the virus spreading through a remote area like Navajo Mountain are already daunting enough. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez ordered a nightly curfew for the reservation last week and on Monday announced a 57-hour weekend curfew would begin on Friday.

“You may be young and healthy, but please be mindful of your elders – your parents and grandparents,” Nez said in a statement. “Their immune system may not be as strong as yours and they need to be protected. ... Projections indicate that we have not reached the peak of the spread of COVID-19, so please take every precaution and stay home as much as possible."

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.