Navajo Nation extends at-home orders amid second COVID-19 wave, hospitalization concerns

Andy Byrnes, a contracted EMT with the Utah Department of Health, tests Darlene Eddie, Utah Navajo Health System outreach supervisor, for COVID-19 outside of the Montezuma Creek Community Health Center in Montezuma Creek, San Juan County, on Friday, May 1, 2020.

(Kristin Murphy, KSL, File)

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — The president of the Navajo Nation said Monday that 77 communities within the sovereign nation, including in Utah, are experiencing "uncontrolled spread" of COVID-19.

And with hospitals filling up in the states around the communities, the nation's leaders said there could be difficulties treating severe cases. It's why the nation issued extensions to public health measures to close out the year.

The Navajo Nation Department of Health identified the more than six dozen communities based on cases from the end of November through Thursday, said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. The list included Aneth in the southeastern corner of the state and Oljato, which is located at Monument Valley on both sides of the Utah-Arizona border.

The nation's health department reported 213 new COVID-19 cases and 15 new deaths on Monday. It has reported 18,163 total cases and 682 deaths since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a statement, Nez warned that it appears the spread of COVID-19 nationwide is "larger than what we experienced in April and May." Meanwhile, Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer said hospitals within the nation are "nearly full" and health care providers "will have to begin to make very tough decisions about who can receive certain treatments and medical attention with their limited resources."

Citing concerns about hospital capacity in the states that comprise the nation, Nez extended a "stay-at-home lockdown" for the next three weeks.

"Due to the high rise in cases and hospitalizations in the states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, hospitals on or near the Navajo Nation are no longer able to transport patients to other regional hospitals because they are also reaching full capacity," Nez said. "Hospitals are also having to compete with many others to obtain oxygen resources to help patients and are short on medical personnel. We must stay home more to reduce the spread."

The order requires residents to stay at home with the exception of essential workers traveling to work, emergency situations, as well as trips to a store for groceries, medication and supplies. Tending livestock and outdoor exercise within an "immediate vicinity" of a person's home is also allowed. People with a permit will also be allowed to travel outside for wood gathering/hauling purposes.

The order also re-implements 57-hour weekend lockdowns from 8 p.m. on Fridays to 5 a.m. on Mondays during the three final weekends of the year. Essential businesses like gas stations, grocery stores, hay vendors, laundromats and food establishments that can provide drive-thru or curbside services will be allowed to run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays only. Customers are to remain in their vehicles for curb-side and drive-thru service.

The order also asks residents to refrain from gatherings not a part of their immediate household. It's required for residents to wear face coverings in public and practice physical distancing.

Nez also extended the nation's state of emergency on Tuesday. The order will keep government offices closed through Dec. 27 and set up applications for assistance programs.

The Navajo Nation was one of the hardest-hit COVID-19 spots at the beginning of the pandemic. In fact, more than three-fourths of its 682 total COVID-19 deaths happened in the spring and summer months. But there were signs of hope that they were able to control the disease. The nation's health department recorded no new cases on a day for the first time in early September — although officials weren't ready to call victory at that time.

The Navajo Nation isn't alone with new COVID-19 struggles. Many communities and nations across the globe have faced struggles to manage the containment of the coronavirus. Many European countries, for example, enacted new measures at the beginning of November to curtail these spikes. Data from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center shows a decline in cases in those countries since the orders were put in place.

White House report: Utah's new case rate still above the national average

On Tuesday, the Center for Public Integrity released the latest White House Task Force report, which was dated Nov. 29. The nonprofit obtained the report through a government records request.

It stated Utah ended the month with the 11th-highest COVID-19 rate per 100,000 people and the sixth-highest positivity rate in the nation. It noted that 86% of all counties "have moderate or high levels of community transmission." It also stated Utah's new case rate per 100,000 people was about 1.7 times above the national average.

While the report noted a stabilization of the state's test positivity rate, that rate has only risen since it was published. Utah's positivity rate was about 21.5% on Nov. 23, which was reported by the state health department on Nov. 29. It is now about 27% as of Dec. 2, according to the department's update Tuesday. It's the highest the rate has been since the pandemic began.

Among items listed in the report, it stated the federal government "supported surge testing" for Grantsville in Tooele County.

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