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The severity of the coronavirus outbreak on the Navajo Nation continued to escalate this week as the tribal government prepared to enforce a 57-hour-long weekend curfew in an attempt to reduce community transmission.
As of Thursday, the Navajo Nation had 558 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 22 deaths, making the death toll among the reservation’s 175,000 residents higher than the states of Utah and New Mexico, which had both announced 17 deaths as of Friday.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer may have been exposed to the virus earlier this week after they spent time with a first responder who later tested positive. Both leaders went into self-isolation on Thursday as a precautionary measure.
“This is real and no one is immune from contracting the virus,” Nez said in a statement, adding that neither he nor Lizer had any symptoms of the disease and that they were wearing masks and gloves during the potential exposure.
Nez encouraged Navajo Nation residents to prepare for a weekendlong curfew that will run from Friday at 8 p.m. through Monday at 5:00 a.m., with exceptions only for essential employees carrying documentation.
Roadblocks will be set up throughout the reservation and Nez said Navajo Police will enforce the curfew order, including by issuing citations that carry a penalty of up to $1,000 and 30 days in jail.
“I am doing fine as I continue to self-quarantine,” Lizer said. “We will overcome COVID-19 together, but it’s up to each of us whether that will be sooner or later. The more people continue to go out into public, the longer we will have to stay home.”
The tribe closed its parks, issued a stay-at-home advisory and implemented a nightly curfew late last month, but cases have risen steadily since the first positive tests came back in mid-March.
A lack of running water in an estimated 30% of homes on the reservation may have contributed to the difficulty of slowing the virus’ spread along with the remote nature of many Navajo Nation communities, which can cause barriers to health care access.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency set up emergency response centers in Chinle, Ariz., near an epicenter of the outbreak, and Arizona sent in the National Guard to assist with the response.
Nez and Lizer have made regular video broadcasts in both English and Diné Bizaad, the Navajo language, and a hotline has been set up for non-English speakers.
Grassroots efforts to provide relief to tribal members have grown quickly as well. A GoFundMe campaign started by former Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch has raised over $500,000 and has coordinated deliveries of food, water and supplies to over 850 families in 21 communities on the Navajo and Hopi reservations.
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.