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Chapters ordered to close; senior centers running low on supplies

DURANGO, Colo.

Last Thursday’s executive order for chapter houses to close their doors has left some chapter officials scratching their heads.

“The chapters are the backbone of the community,” said Tsé Alnaozt’i’i Chapter President Frank Smith. “We’re the place people come in a crisis. We should be the last place that closes.”

Agreed Nageezi Chapter President Ervin Chavez, “When I first saw the executive order I was like, ‘What?’ I called my Council delegate to make sure it was right.”

In the meantime, the Navajo Nation Council last week voted down a proposal for a $3 million coronavirus-related emergency management package in favor of the funds going directly to the chapters, then on Friday reversed that decision by allocating $4 million to the Navajo Nation Department of Health and emergency response workers.

President Jonathan Nez had addressed the Council and explained that chapter employees and volunteers may not be trained or have the equipment to safely deliver services, whereas medical and emergency personnel do.

The closure mandate only applies to the non-LGA-certified chapters. Tó Nanees Dizi and Chinle, two of the largest certified chapters, were both open but with some restrictions.

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Chinle Chapter Manager Walton Yazzie said Chinle Chapter is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Business is being conducted outside the chapter and all employees are wearing masks.

“The thing we’re most concerned about is the water,” Yazzie said. “We have a lot of people who don’t have running water and rely on the chapter to fill their tanks.”

People can pay for their water outside. The transfer station is also still open so people can dispose of their trash.

Across the Nation, most senior citizen centers are still open and serving take-home meals as well as delivering meals to elderly residents, but Smith, who is also his chapter’s senior citizen center director, said he’s running out of both food and take-home trays.

Chavez and Yazzie confirmed their senior centers are in the same boat but the chapters are helping them purchase supplies.

Smith said his bosses in the Navajo Division of Aging and Long Term Care Services and his Council delegate have checked in several times asking what he needs, but he hasn’t seen anything yet.

“They keep asking me, but I’m feeding 80 people a day so if the food I asked for comes in a week, it won’t be enough,” Smith said. “I wish they would stop asking me and just bring something.”

Newcomb Senior Center Director David Randolph agreed.

“They haven’t even told us if they’ve ordered supplies or how long we have to wait, so we can plan,” he said.

An employee who answered the phone at the division referred this reporter to Navajo Nation Health Department Director Jill Jim, who did not return a phone call.

Smith said his center also doesn’t have any hand sanitizer gel or masks for its employees, and although the seniors wait in line outside for their meals, they’re not standing six feet apart.

Newcomb is in the same boat, said Randolph.

“Even if they order that stuff, can they even get it?” he asked. “It’s all over the internet – there’s no masks, no respirators, no hand sanitizer to be had.”

Randolph thinks the senior centers should be prioritized for any protective gear the Nation orders, both because they deal with the most vulnerable population and because they have to get within two feet of people to hand them their take-out trays.

With the Northern Agency community health representatives no longer making house calls, he argued, he has no way of knowing which seniors are sick and which need extra help.

“I don’t know where they (seniors) have been, or their family members,” he said. “For that matter, I don’t know where my staff has been. Out here everybody has to go to Gallup or Farmington just for basic needs.”

“If one of them gets it (COVID-19), I’m really afraid for my staff and the other seniors,” added Smith. “I’m glad our government came up with the money, but by the time we get anything, this whole thing may be over.”



About The Author

Cindy Yurth

Cindy Yurth is the Tséyi' Bureau reporter, covering the Central Agency of the Navajo Nation. Her other beats include agriculture and Arizona state politics. She holds a bachelor’s degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University with a cognate in geology. She has been in the news business since 1980 and with the Navajo Times since 2005, and is the author of “Exploring the Navajo Nation Chapter by Chapter.” She can be reached at cyurth@navajotimes.com.

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