Despair gives way to hope as San Juan leads Utah in vaccinations

After enduring the highest mortality rate in the state, over 40% of the rural county has received at least one dose of the vaccine, far outpacing the national average.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Brenda Vijil, a Diné medical assistant at Utah Navajo Health System's Monument Valley Clinic, records an incoming patient's personal information before admittance into the triage unit to take vitals and administer a coronavirus test. Aug. 24, 2020.

Bluff For much of the past year, when community leaders in San Juan County opened biweekly coronavirus update emails from the region’s health department, they were prepared for grim news.

New cases of the coronavirus were identified among San Juan’s 15,300 residents almost every day for 11 months as outbreaks swept through small Navajo Nation communities, a nursing home in Blanding and the county’s larger cities, often repeatedly. The county, which has Utah’s highest poverty rate, leads the state for per capita coronavirus cases since the pandemic began. And 36 residents, including numerous elders from the Navajo Nation, have died from the disease — a mortality rate higher than anywhere else in Utah.

But a recent update from the region’s health department noted a significant new milestone: For five consecutive days, zero new cases of the coronavirus had been identified, marking a dramatic change from mid-January, when there were nearly 300 active cases in the rural southeastern Utah county.

The precipitous decline in new positive test results correlates with the rising number of residents who received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“As of March 13, our data shows 10,462 doses have been administered to at least 6,500 people in San Juan County — which means about 40% of our county has had at least one dose according to the 2019 Census,” said Keana Kaleikini, an epidemiologist for San Juan Public Health.

That places San Juan County’s vaccination rate at nearly double the statewide and national averages, which are both at 19% for people who have received at least one dose.

Pete Sands — a Diné public relations specialist for Utah Navajo Health System (UNHS), which has administered more than three-quarters of the vaccines in the county — said the trend is allowing San Juan residents to finally see the light at the end of a gloomy tunnel.

The Utah portion of the Navajo Nation that UNHS primarily serves, Sands said, “is such a tightknit, small community, that even one loss is huge.”

“Having people die weekly around our community was tough,” the 38-year-old Sands said. “And it wasn’t just elderly people, it was like people that were my age, people I went to school with.”

(Zak Podmore | Tribune file photo) 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.

The sense of despair has started to fade, however, as the vaccine opened up to all adults over age 16 in recent weeks and the county has led the state not in new cases but rather in an upbeat metric: per capita vaccinations.

“To see people happy, to see people hopeful is great,” Sands said. “It’s like that dark cloud is lifting.”

UNHS has offered efficient, mass drive-thru vaccinations and has even offered vaccinations to out-of-state residents on several occasions when it has had extra doses.

“It has been so heartwarming to have the community come out for the vaccines in mass numbers,” said Mike Jensen, CEO of UNHS.

“We’ve got good penetration in terms of vaccination rates,” he added, “and to see that case count proportionally go down as vaccines have gone up has been awesome. There really is very, very little COVID in the county right now.”

UNHS bought a deep freezer late last year, which allowed it to accept doses of the Pfizer vaccine ahead of other rural areas. Additionally, the state and the Indian Health Service have prioritized getting vaccines to the tribal communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

“They’ve been really good about supporting the tribes,” Jensen said, “and making sure they get vaccines.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Samantha Eldridge stacks wood from fallen trees that is being donated to the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. The center, along with Utah Navajo Health System in Montezuma Creek, helped Native American elders in Utah prepare for winter by holding a firewood relief drive and collection.

More than 70% of eligible residents of the Navajo Nation, which spans portions of Utah, New Mexico and Arizona and has a population of around 170,000, have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez announced last week that the reservation will begin reopening gradually Monday.

But even if regional rates of COVID-19 remain low, there is still considerable recovery work ahead. Sands, who helped develop food and firewood distribution programs for residents of southern San Juan County last year, said the economic impacts of the pandemic remain significant.

“The lingering effects of COVID will still be around,” Sands said, “and the relief programs are not going to stop anytime soon. But [UNHS’ work] is something that we’re very proud of here — what we’ve been able to do for the community — and it pays for itself by seeing relief on people’s faces.”

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.