Donation drive for Navajo Nation coronavirus relief runs through Thursday in Salt Lake

(Courtesy of Sahar Khadjenoury | Utah Navajo Health System) Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake, and TeMarae Blackwater (Diné) sort donated supplies at the Utah Navajo Health System fundraiser in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 27, 2020.

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Montezuma Creek • Pete Sands’ job title with the Utah Navajo Health System is technically public relations specialist, but for the past month, he’s spent more time delivering food and supplies to families on or near the northern Navajo Nation than writing news releases.

The Navajo Nation has been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus, with 59 deaths attributed to the disease as of Friday, more than Utah and 11 other states. Six weeks after the first case on the reservation was identified in northern Arizona, Sands, a musician and songwriter who lives in Montezuma Creek, said he’s starting to see signs that the curve is flattening.

“The Navajo Nation numbers are starting to slow down — those infected — so we are just trying [to] keep people home,” he said, “and to keep people who are positive with the virus at home without having to worry about running out of food.”

Sands started the Utah Navajo Covid Relief Program in March when he saw the outbreak would have a big impact on the communities that the Utah Navajo Health System (UNHS) serves.

“Things were bad already,” Sands said, referring to a lack of infrastructure and difficult economic conditions, “but having this virus on top of it just made things even worse.”

Before San Juan County had its first confirmed case, UNHS set up outdoor screening areas for patients and increased the use of medical teleconferencing to limit contact between patients and staff at its four clinics, located in Montezuma Creek, Monument Valley, Navajo Mountain and Blanding.

The health system also supported Sands’ relief efforts, which involve making bulk orders through the distributor that supplies the market in the Montezuma Creek Clinic and delivering boxes of food and supplies to houses.

“There's a strong sense of community down here,” said Michael Jensen, the CEO of UNHS. “I know our employees want to look after their community members, so this was kind of a bottom-up thing where our staff started doing it. Then some very generous donors and others, including UNHS money, pitched in to make it happen, and it's grown from there.”

Sands said the effort quickly surpassed anything he expected, but so did the need for relief, especially as the Navajo Nation tightened restrictions in an effort to slow the spread of the virus through nightly and weekend curfews.

In order to meet that rising demand in the community, UNHS is partnering with the University of Utah School of Medicine’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake City to run a donation drive this week that will go to benefit the relief program in San Juan County.

Donations of medical supplies, personal protective equipment, nonperishable food items and more will be accepted April 28 through 30, from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., at the Urban Indian Center in Salt Lake City. Monetary donations can be made directly through unhsinc.org.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said she donated $250 to UNHS and is challenging her colleagues in the Legislature and other elected officials to do the same.

“That’s one thing that I’m doing personally,” said Romero, who identifies as Hispanic and Assiniboine, part of the Sioux Nation. “And it’s just to really bring this awareness because oftentimes when we talk about indigenous communities, we talk about them in the past. But we indigenous people are here, and we’re part of the present.”

“I’m working with my other colleagues — there’s five of us who are from ethnic, racial backgrounds in the Legislature — and we’re working together to bring more awareness because of who’s being impacted most by the coronavirus,” she added, referring to data that indicates communities of color in Utah have been disproportionately affected by the outbreak.

“Regardless of where you live in Utah, it’s important to take care of all Utahns,” Romero said.

After UNHS helped administer 1,300 free coronavirus tests at the Utah Department of Health mobile labs in the remote communities of Navajo Mountain and Monument Valley earlier this month, San Juan County had a total of 45 confirmed cases.

The San Juan Health District now has the third-highest rate of coronavirus cases in the state per capita after Summit and Wasatch counties, though residents of the Navajo Nation have generally had more access to testing, making it difficult to compare infection rates. Another round of free testing will be conducted in Montezuma Creek on Thursday and Friday.

Sands said he was heartened by the “tremendous turnout” of donors who pitched in during the first part of the drive over the weekend.

“There are so many organizations, so many good-spirited people who are helping get food down [to San Juan County],” Sands said. “It’s really, really helping us connect the human spirit, and it’s making us realize we’re all one.”

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.