As the Navajo Nation battles a COVID-19 onslaught, some Utah leaders cry conspiracy

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Volunteers, elected officials and employees of the Navajo Nation work to unload food and water supplied by the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President in Aneth on Thursday, May 14, 2020.

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Aneth • The day before Charlaine Tso joined Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez to distribute food to communities along the Arizona-Utah border, she attended three funerals.

“It was one of the biggest heartbreaking moments [of the pandemic],” said Tso, who represents northeastern Arizona and parts of San Juan County as a delegate on the Navajo Nation Council. “I had to bury three of my community members, all with the same family. Literally a quarter mile away from my house [near Sweetwater, Ariz.], you could see the line behind the funeral hearse twice in one morning and then in the afternoon again.”

The deaths were three among the 140 counted so far on the Navajo Nation, which has lost more of its citizens to the coronavirus pandemic than 13 states, including Utah where 80 people had died as of Sunday.

Traditional Navajo funerals are social affairs with days of gatherings and stories, but that has been impossible since the first case of the coronavirus arrived on the Navajo Nation and social distancing orders were put into effect to slow the spread of the disease.

“To be able to hold one another to comfort your mother, your father, your grandparents, your brothers — you can’t do that now,” Tso said. “I’ve seen this mother who was just crying and saying she felt like it was a claustrophobic experience, and she had to roll down the window. The kids had no choice but to get out of the vehicle to console their mother. And that was one ... memory that will be forever embedded in my brain.”

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(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Navajo Nation Council Delegate Charlaine Tso stacks donated food at a coronavirus relief event in Aneth on Thursday, May 14, 2020.

A visit from the president

San Juan County, which begins 10 miles north of Sweetwater, has been fortunate so far compared to other parts of the Navajo Nation, said Davis Filfred, an executive staff assistant for President Nez and liaison for the nation’s Utah chapters.

But with four deaths and 177 cases in the 15,500-person county, San Juan now has the highest per capita case rate of COVID-19 in the state. And as tourism has slowed and oil prices have plummeted, the livelihoods of many locals have been cast into uncertainty.

Tso joined Filfred at his home chapter of Aneth along with a number of other volunteers and workers to distribute food and water secured by the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President. The food — mostly fresh produce like tomatoes, eggplants and fruit — was hauled in a semi truck belonging to the Navajo Department of Transportation.

Vehicles began lining up for the event hours before the truck arrived and each windshield was marked with a symbol for the number of elders and other people in the household. Once distribution began, the line moved efficiently, with over a hundred vehicles loaded in under an hour.

“I get exhausted and these guys are going nonstop,” Filfred said of Nez’s team. On Thursday alone, Nez hosted a virtual town hall, filmed a cable news segment with CNN and visited five food distribution events in Aneth, Teec Nos Pos, Red Mesa, Mexican Water and Sweetwater where a total of 757 families were served.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sahar Khadjenoury, an employee of Utah Navajo Health Systems in Montezuma Creek, holds a food box. Nez, who described himself as a “health nut,” said the fresh produce was donated from farms in Arizona thanks to a partnership between Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce Bracker, the University of Arizona and the Navajo Nation.

"We're here to help the citizens have the basic necessities to get through the weekend curfews,” Nez told The Salt Lake Tribune, referring to the lockdowns that have been enforced by Navajo Nation police each weekend since late March.

The restrictions have been a key component of the Navajo Nation government’s attempts to flatten the coronavirus curve, but Nez acknowledged they can make it difficult for families in rural areas to access supplies.

“This weekend is going to be one of the most stringent curfews of the six that we’ve had because we’re going to close all businesses,” Nez said of the curfew set to run from Friday night through Monday morning that required the closure of gas stations and grocery stores for the first time. “We’ve been challenging the Navajo people to hold each other accountable during this time. We need their help in order for us to get through this.”

But Nez expressed concerns about the states that overlap with the Navajo Nation — Utah, Arizona and New Mexico — loosening restrictions before the crisis has been fully addressed.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sign at the Aneth Chapter House announces latest health orders from the Navajo Nation government.

“The cities are opening up, and they’re not helping one bit,” he said. “We’re still having numbers that are going up, up. ... Why open up your government — why open up your businesses — when the cases of COVID-19 are still going up? That is what upsets me. We’re all in this together.

“What happens on the reservation — what happens to the Navajo Nation — affects cities like Salt Lake, Albuquerque, Phoenix and vice versa,” Nez continued. “We should be all working together, abiding by the health care professionals and the scientists. And they have been telling us that the best thing to do right now is to stay home.”

Hours after the Aneth event, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced that most of Utah, including San Juan County, would be transitioning to “yellow,” or low-risk status, after new cases in the state recently plateaued. The new guidelines allow all businesses to reopen with some restrictions and for gatherings of up to 50 people.

The order won’t apply to the Navajo Nation, and the border town of Bluff requested another exemption from the governor Friday to remain in the “red” classification for high-risk areas.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez (right) talks with Utah Navajo Health System employee Pete Sands at a food distribution event in Aneth on Thursday, May 14, 2020.

A ‘manufactured crisis’

While Nez sees the restrictions as essential to saving lives, state Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, whose district overlaps with the Navajo Nation, sees state public health orders as examples of extreme governmental overreach.

On May 3, Lyman wrote a public Facebook post where he argued that politicians should not issue orders related to health care and other matters.

“If your doctor advises you to wear a facemask you should probably do it,” Lyman wrote. “If your governor or your local health department orders you to wear one you should absolutely not do it, (unless you want to).

“Resist tyranny when it starts, not when it has taken over every aspect of your life,” he added. “And yes, ordering people to do even trivial things, (maybe especially trivial things), is a type of tyranny. … I won’t wear a face mask, (unless of course I am prohibited by my government from wearing one, in which case I would clearly have to wear one). It’s not disobedience, or rebellion, it’s ensuring that government remembers that it is a servant not a master.”

In a recent post, Lyman went further, suggesting the coronavirus pandemic was a conspiracy designed to unseat President Donald Trump in November. Lyman shared a video from Infowars’ Alex Jones, who was banned from Facebook, Apple, YouTube and Spotify in 2018 for “promoting violence and hate speech.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) This Dec. 4, 2017, file photo shows Bruce Adams, left, chairman of the San Juan County Commission and then-San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, at the Utah Capitol during the visit of President Donald Trump in Salt Lake City.

In the video, Jones argues that “a globalist cabal inside the World Health Organization, controlling the [National Institutes of Health] in the United States, has been attempting to engage in economic warfare and keep the United States locked down through the election because Democrats and globalists publicly admit that they believe a bad economy will be instrumental in making Donald John Trump lose the 2020 election.”

“The timing of this shutdown and the people who pushed for it is 95% proof that it is a manufactured crisis,” Lyman wrote. “I think Alex Jones is correct.”

Lyman declined to comment for this article, saying The Tribune should quote from the video and his post.

Asked to respond to the assertions, Nez challenged Lyman to visit the Navajo Nation.

“I challenge anybody out there that has something to say about these safety precautions that we're doing to come over here and help us do food distribution to see firsthand how our people are struggling,” Nez said. “And that's not just happening here, right? It's happening all across the country.

“People are struggling, and it’s no hoax,” he continued. “You’ve got to see it for yourself. I love Phil Lyman. He’s a great person. But if he wants to see what’s happening on the front lines, he should come and hang out with the warriors that are battling this COVID-19, and he’ll have a different perspective.”

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shaandiin Parrish, the 2019-2020 Miss Navajo Nation, helped at the food distribution event in Aneth on Thursday. “Everybody's role is important and crucial,” she said. “As Miss Navajo Nation, my role as an ambassador is always first and foremost to be of service to our people. During this pandemic, my role as Miss Navajo doesn't stop; it is within me to continue to serve our people.”


The food distribution on the Navajo Nation coincided with a round of free coronavirus testing in Blanding on Thursday and Friday hosted by a coalition of health care entities: Utah Navajo Health System, the Utah Department of Health, San Juan Public Health, Blue Mountain Hospital in Blanding and San Juan Hospital in Monticello.

Over 650 people were tested on Thursday, and preliminary results showed about 40% were residents of Blanding, which has seen less testing relative to the southern part of the county. Roughly three quarters of people who participated in the event Thursday self-identified as American Indian. Previous testing events held in Navajo Mountain, Monument Valley and Montezuma Creek screened thousands of San Juan County and other Four Corners residents, the majority of whom were Native American.

Kirk Benge, director of the San Juan Public Health Department, has repeatedly said more testing will likely uncover existing cases of the coronavirus in the county, which will help inform public health decisions. And infectious disease experts and university researchers have said widespread testing is key to safely reopening the economy.

But that notion has been called into question by some San Juan County leaders. In the video Lyman shared, Jones falsely implies that coronavirus tests will show positive results if “you’ve ever had a coronavirus infection — the common cold.”

And Blanding City Councilmember Cheryl Bowers, who is running in the Republican primary for San Juan County commissioner against incumbent Bruce Adams, expressed concerns on Facebook Thursday that the testing push would be used to single out the county as a “hotspot,” a term used in a recent KSL article about a state coronavirus briefing.

“They did a lot of testing — our numbers went up,” she wrote. “We haven’t overwhelmed our wonderful healthcare system in [the county], shouldn’t that be hailed as a success? I call it success. The State Health Director needs to be careful in their words or people aren’t going to voluntarily be tested for fear of the state holding the results against their county.”

Bowers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) A drive-thru coronavirus testing event was held in Blanding on Thursday, May 14, 2020.

Representatives of Blue Mountain and San Juan hospitals confirmed Thursday that the county is currently in a good position with regards to hospital bed capacity. Nine rooms have been converted to have negative pressure and remote patient monitoring equipment that will help minimize the spread of the virus if patients need intensive care in the county, which hasn’t been the case so far.

Additionally, there is capacity statewide and hospital beds are available at the University of Utah, for example, that could be used by San Juan County residents if needed.

As of Sunday, San Juan County had reported 18 hospitalizations and four coronavirus-linked deaths, the latest of which was confirmed Friday.

Byron Clarke, Utah Navajo Health System’s chief operations officer, emphasized the importance of testing, noting that thousands of work hours were put into the Blanding event alone.

“If we can locate and identify just one person who needs to stay home rather than go to work,” Clarke said, “you can’t enumerate the number of lives that could potentially save .... One person in the right circumstances can have a devastating impact on communities, so we will continue to test as much as we can, locate as many positives as we can and ask them to quarantine.”

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.