Navajo Nation may have reached its coronavirus peak in late April

(Courtesy of the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President) Screen grab of Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez speaking at a town hall event on Tuesday.

The Navajo Nation, which has lost more than 156 of its residents to COVID-19, may have seen the virus peak late last month according to an announcement made by Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez on Tuesday.

Speaking at a video town hall alongside other Navajo Nation officials and the director of the Indian Health Service, Nez said that earlier projections estimated COVID-19’s impact on the reservation health care system would reach its apex in mid-May.

But social distancing restrictions and other measures taken to flatten the curve, such as travel restrictions and weekend and nightly curfews ordered by the Navajo Nation government, appear to have worked.

[Read more: As the Navajo Nation battles a COVID-19 onslaught, some Utah leaders cry conspiracy]

Experts now say the use of Navajo Area Indian Health Service facilities — including coronavirus-related hospitalizations, intensive care unit admissions and ventilator use — peaked around April 24 with a steady decline in the weeks since.

"The projection ... was updated to show that you all did your best,” Nez told members of the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation in the United States, which overlaps with Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. “The Navajo people should be commended. We all did this together just as our ancestors worked together.”

(Courtesy of the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President) An updated review of the predicted surge in Navajo Area Indian Health Service federal facilities, including actual inpatient and intensive care unit admissions as well as transfers to tertiary centers, shows the Navajo Nation reached its peak of coronavirus-related hospitalizations in April.

Nez thanked Navajo citizens who wore protective equipment and followed distancing guidelines. “If you were wearing a mask, you were a warrior,” he said. “Wearing a mask does work.”

The Navajo Nation has a higher per capita testing rate than any state in the U.S. and many countries worldwide, Nez noted, with nearly 15% of reservation residents having been tested for the coronavirus.

The state of New York, by contrast, which has among the highest testing rates in the country, had tested 9% of its population as of Tuesday. The Navajo Nation passed New York earlier this month for per capita positive cases.

Positive case identification will have a later peak date than hospitalizations, Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer noted, because test results have a delay.

"I am very pleased to see that the COVID-19 surge peak passed last month,” Lizer said. “Navajo people have done a tremendous job in answering our call to protect our elders ... [but] we are not out of the woods yet. We must keep up our fight against COVID-19.”

Utah health officials announced Tuesday the death of a female San Juan County resident who was between the ages of 60-85 and who was hospitalized at time of death. The county, which overlaps with the Navajo Nation, has the highest coronavirus case rate in Utah. The Navajo Nation Department of Health had identified 4,689 positive cases as of Tuesday; 23,166 tests came back negative.

The Navajo Nation received $600 million in emergency relief funding from Congress in March.

Nez said he hopes more than half of the money will go to building water infrastructure, adding that the Navajo Nation is working with federal partners to cut red tape and expedite construction.

“Thirty to 40% of our Navajo citizens don’t have running water,” he said. “Here’s an opportunity.” Other priorities identified by Nez include broadband, solar and electricity projects as well as scholarship funds and new home construction.

Navajo Nation Attorney General Doreen McPaul gave a summary of the outpouring of relief efforts and donations that have been flowing to the Navajo Nation over the past few weeks, including from citizens of Ireland, and announced the tribal government’s new fundraising website navajo.fund.

Nongovernmental relief efforts have also been successful. The Utah Farm Bureau helped distribute 16,000 pounds of lamb meat and 500 live sheep in San Juan County this week, and a GoFundMe campaign started by former Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch has raised over $4.2 million.

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.