Remote Navajo Mountain clinic now ranks among Utah’s most vaccinated places

The shots bring a sense of relief to a rural community hit hard early in the pandemic.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Navajo Mountain Health Clinic Manager Revina Talker (left) tends to a 74-year-old Diné patient as medical assistant Toni Black gets an IV flowing on Aug., 25, 2020. The small community of Navajo Mountain has vaccinated over half of its residents against COVID-19.

The tiny Navajo Nation community of Navajo Mountain suffered some of Utah’s first COVID-19 deaths last March. Now it’s among the most vaccinated areas in the state.

Of the roughly 380 patients served by the Navajo Mountain Community Health Center just north of the Utah-Arizona border, more than half have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

“Statistically, with their population, they’re probably the most vaccinated community in Utah, or around there,” said Byron Clarke, chief operations officer for Utah Navajo Health System (UNHS), which oversees the clinic.

The clinic’s medical staff — eight Diné women — worked to inoculate around 60 elders in early January. The staffers have since vaccinated 140 additional people, most of whom are 50 and older, according to clinic manager Revina Talker.

“In Navajo Mountain, we’ve kind of been lenient as to who can get the vaccine just because we’re so isolated,” Talker said, adding that some younger patients with chronic medical conditions have been vaccinated.

The shots have been scheduled in batches of six to match the number of doses in a Pfizer vaccine vial, and some priority patients have been called to receive leftover doses.

“It would be awful,” she said, “to lose a vaccine because [it spoiled].”

The process has been going smoothly, and one advantage to living in a rural area — where ambulances can take an hour to arrive — is that patients have been able to get vaccinated quickly, avoiding long lines that have formed in urban areas.

On Tuesday, the clinic administered shots to 48 people in several hours. With 1,000 more doses on the way to UNHS, Talker said all residents of the Navajo Mountain area who want the vaccine could receive it as soon as next week.

The vaccinations bring a huge sense of relief for the rural area where tightknit relationships between staff and patients made the deaths over the past year particularly painful.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Navajo Mountain Community Health Clinic medical assistant Toni Black strips off her personal protective equipment, left, as lab technician Roxanna Yazzie tests bloodwork from a 74-year-old Diné patient on Aug., 25, 2020. Yazzie is one of eight staff members responsible for driving coronavirus tests from Utah’s Navajo Mountain to the San Juan County Public Health building in Blanding, a 185 mile trip one-way.

“Growing up here, we all pretty much knew each other,” Sonya Sloan, a 33-year-old medical assistant from Navajo Mountain, told The Salt Lake Tribune last September. “You know where everybody lives. You know who is related. It’s like one big old family.”

San Juan County, where Navajo Mountain is located, has the highest per capita mortality rate in Utah, having lost 36 out of its 15,500 residents to COVID-19. An additional 159 people in the county have been hospitalized.

Navajo Mountain was hit early in the pandemic after a church revival spread the disease in the community, including to several elders. An 81-year-old grandmother and her son died within days of each other in late March after isolating at home.

Health care workers quickly implemented a number of safety protocols to keep their families and colleagues safe, and over the summer the facility shut down for two weeks after a staffer tested positive for COVID-19. Cases in the area have been low recently, Talker said, and the vaccines bring an additional reprieve.

“When I got my vaccine, it was a little emotional because I thought about all the people we lost and how we couldn’t get this sooner for them,” she said. “It just wasn’t possible, but you couldn’t help but think about the people you lost in your own family, in your community.”

The clinic’s patients have also been grateful for the vaccine. The family of one elderly woman drove six hours from Phoenix to ensure she was able to get her second dose earlier this month. In Monument Valley, where Talker lives, a man rode his bike 40 miles to get his shot.

Other patients have needed more convincing, and Talker has taken the time to explain, in the Navajo language, the effectiveness and importance of getting vaccinated, while addressing fears about possible side effects.

With variants of COVID-19 spreading throughout the world, Talker isn’t resting yet.

“We still need to be careful,” she said, “but I think it’s going to be a bit of relief once we’re able to see more cases drop. And if we go days and days without [new COVID-19 cases] it would be amazing. That would be wonderful once we get there.”

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.