Navajo Nation President authorizes $576M in COVID-19 stimulus for Diné communities as omicron surges

Volunteer-led aid groups in Utah’s San Juan County, which have helped Utah’s Diné people through the pandemic, are preparing for long-term response solutions.

(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. Nez authorized more than $500 millions in new COVID-19 “hardship assistance” in early January 2021 for the Diné people as Indigenous communities, and the county, buckle down against the rapidly spreading omicron variant.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has authorized more than $500 million in new COVID-19 “hardship assistance” for the Diné people as Indigenous communities, and San Juan County, buckle down against the rapidly spreading omicron variant.

On Jan. 4, Nez signed a Navajo Nation resolution that directed $557 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds — COVID-19 relief passed early in the Biden administration — to be used for individual stimulus payments, an effort he hoped would mitigate the lingering and ongoing effects of the pandemic.

Approximately 345,000 Diné people qualify for the hardship assistance, with Navajo Nation adults receiving $2,000 and younger members receiving $600.

Nearly a week earlier, Nez approved $16 million in remaining CARES Act money to be reallocated to support Navajo elders — members older than 60 years old — with an additional $300 hardship payment.

“We love our Diné people and we do not want any more of our people to lose their lives to this modern-day monster known as COVID-19. With the approval of another round of hardship assistance, we strongly urge our people to use the funds for essential items and services that will help protect and prepare your homes and families,” Nez said in a statement after signing the second resolution.

And while the financial relief will help the Diné people as they prepare for what could be a third year of the coronavirus pandemic, Navajo communities have spent the last two years getting volunteer response systems in place.

Volunteer-led aid groups, known in the community as “mutual aid groups,” have delivered thousands of care packages, food and even firewood to those isolated by the virus.

Mutual aid networks in San Juan County, such as the Utah Navajo COVID-19 Relief Program and Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund, are built off of kinship ties within the Indigenous communities of the Four Corners region. In some cases, the volunteer groups are supported by the local health care system.

Approximately 9,000 care packages have been delivered to residents in the San Juan County communities of Navajo/Paiute Mountain, Monument Valley, Blanding and Montezuma Creek, says Sahar Khadjenoury, program coordinator for the Utah Navajo COVID-19 Relief Program.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sahar Khadjenoury, an employee of Utah Navajo Health Systems in Montezuma Creek, holds a box of donated produce.

This winter, the Utah Navajo COVID-19 Relief Program has focused on families with positive cases and maintained its regular distribution of supplies and child care packages for community members. The group’s COVID-19 response work comes in response to community love, Khadjenoury says.

“When you hear about a death in the community, these things impact us greatly,” Khadjenoury said, referring to the cultural knowledge and language lost with the deaths of Diné elders. “And taking care of the community is the best way I can show that kinship and my respect to my family by helping others.”

She adds that mutual aid networks like the Utah Navajo COVID-19 Relief Program are as simple as caring for each other, including the chores of chopping wood for relatives or hauling water for an elder.

“I think relief groups have been successful at finding other like-minded individuals who are ready to roll up their sleeves and make these distributions possible,” Khadjenoury said. “And finding ways to care for people is the best way to show one’s pride within your community, have pride within yourself, but also pay homage to the way that our communities have cared for each other for centuries.”

Like the rest of the county, the omicron variant was first discovered in the Navajo Nation in late 2021. Prospects of a pandemic with no clear end in sight have led volunteers and health care workers to begin imagining how their response and relief efforts can be extended in the long term.

Katerina Benally, a full-time public health nurse with the Utah Navajo Health System, confirmed that the omicron variant had been detected in San Juan County. The Navajo Department of Epidemiology reported that the omicron variant was detected from a sample collected in mid-December.

Beyond her role of contact tracing and providing care to those who test positive for COVID-19, Benally volunteers with the Utah Navajo COVID-19 Relief Program and helps the group with their care packages.

With omicron surging, Benally says, the Navajo Nation is experiencing a 10% positivity rate among those getting tested.

“That’s kind of a high number when it comes to public health standards,” she explained.

On Friday, the Navajo Department of Health reported more than 42,600 total COVID-19 cases and nearly 1,600 related deaths.

In Monument Valley, Shandiin Herrera has led the efforts of food distribution, isolation kits, and making of hand-sewn face masks. She’s also worked with the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief mutual aid group to open a long-term resource center that offers residents access to internet and a library of books.

After launching in March 2020, early efforts of the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief group included food and personal protective equipment distribution and giving out hand-wash stations for those without running water in San Juan County. The group also raised over $7.5 million in private donations early in the pandemic to help with its phase one direct relief work.

The new community center, which has served about 28% of the local population, is a better option for people who would normally drive 75 miles one-way to Blanding for services like printing and faxing, Herrera said. The center has also hosted classes like sewing, computer or beading workshops.

During the delta and omicron surges, Herrera says the group has become more strategic with its direct relief work, focusing on those that contract the virus.

“We’re constantly finding ways we can help our community. And internally, we focus, like what we call, the Hogan level,” Herrera said. “We’re trying to make sure families have food, that they have wood to keep them warm, that they can wash their hands so that they are reducing their risk of catching COVID.”

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, a Navajo Nation lawmaker who advocated for hardship checks and has worked with the community volunteer groups, said the fiscal stimulus is an example of direct relief from the government that helps in addition to the existing work of the mutual aid networks.

“Our people are really fatigued, they’re mentally fatigued,” Crotty said. “We’re being stretched thin. So now we’re also being asked to pay more for less. And so it is a time where this funding can help pay for some outstanding bills or pay for the increased cost of essential supplies.”