Nation monitors, preps, plans for virus
The COVID-19 virus, commonly referred to as coronavirus, is being monitored very closely by the Navajo Area Indian Health Service and Navajo Nation Department of Health.
There are no confirmed cases on the Navajo Nation, according to President Jonathan Nez.
Jill Jim, executive director of the Department of Health, added that the Navajo Nation is considered a “low-risk” area.
She repeated this a few times during her presentation to the Navajo Nation Council’s Naabi’iyati’ Committee on Monday. The committee had a planning meeting dedicated to the issue.
What is COVID-19?
COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by a virus much like influenza.
A virus is an infectious agent that cannot live without a host cell, according to Britannica. A virus takes over a healthy living cell in order to reproduce itself in the body.
The symptoms include fever, dry cough and shortness of breath.
It spreads person-to-person through droplets of moisture that spread via coughing and sneezing. The droplets can spew from people as far as six feet.
The biggest concern is the development of life-threatening illness complications like pneumonia. The most at-risk are children, those who are immunosuppressed, those with underlying health issues and elders.
As of press time Wednesday, there were nine confirmed deaths in the U.S. All the reported deaths are in Washington state in King and Snohomish counties, according to the Washington State Department of Health.
The virus spread in a long-term care facility in King County called LifeCare where residents were elders and/or people with underlying health issues.
Five residents, who were in their 50s to 80s, from that facility died after being infected with COVID-19.
The additional three deaths from King County ranged in age from 50 to 80.
The one reported death in Snohomish County was age 40 with underlying health conditions.
The illness is not spreading from community to community in the U.S., according to the Center for Disease Control. However, it is confirmed to be spreading person-to-person.
There is no vaccine but multiple agencies throughout the world are working on a vaccine, according to Sherri Helton, who is in charge of emergency management for Navajo Area IHS.
People who are considered at-risk for contracting the virus are those who live in China and those who have travelled to China.
The first case in the U.S. was reported on Jan. 21. There are currently 60 people from 12 states with confirmed cases of the illness.
“Twenty-two of these cases are travel-related; 11 are believed to be person-to-person spread; and for the remaining 27 the source of exposure is still under investigation,” according to the CDC.
The states with confirmed cases are Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin.
How is Navajo Nation preparing?
The Nation has been closely monitoring COVID-19 since January. The first to activate their Emergency Operations Center was the Navajo Area IHS on Feb. 25. They hold daily briefings and debriefings every weekday at 8:30 a.m. and again at 4 p.m.
“We rolled out our EOC and activated that,” Roselyn Tso, director of the Navajo Area IHS, said. “We anticipate that by the end of this week all of our federal service units will also be in line.”
The Nation now has three teams working to monitor the situation – Navajo Area IHS’s Emergency Operations Center, Navajo Department of Health’s Health Command Operations Center and the president office’s COVID-19 Preparedness Team.
Each institution has their own teams to prepare and monitor the situation but are also in communication with one another.
Tso and her team are also working to ensure the hospitals on the Navajo Nation have the supplies they need to handle suspected cases of the virus. The Navajo Area IHS stands ready to support hospitals should they need to respond. There is communication and coordination between all health care facilities on Navajo including ’638 facilities.
“My general assessment is that the Navajo Area is leading throughout Indian Country in terms of what we’re doing,” Tso said. “We are watching this very closely.”
IHS is also home to members of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, who have firsthand experience with these types of outbreaks.
“We are also very fortunate that we do have some experts within the Navajo area IHS,” Tso said.
These experts have been invaluable to IHS’s Emergency Operations Center.
“When that first case comes to Navajo we have to be prepared for that and making sure our clinical staff is onboard and understanding what we need to do to address that,” Tso said.
The Navajo Health Department activated a planning section on Feb. 27, which is part of their four-part Health Command Operations Center. This team is in contact with the “Navajo Nation executive and legislative branches, tribal health organizations, Indian Health Service areas (Navajo, Phoenix, Albuquerque), state health departments, county health departments, the CDC and other tribes,” according to their presentation documents.
The department already has a well-planned organizational chart should it need to activate the Health Command Operations Center.
The department also is currently working on creating a Navajo word for the virus.
They also did a two-hour radio forum on KTNN about the virus in the hopes of fighting misinformation. They are trying to reach out to as many communities as possible to talk about illness prevention.
What should people do?
“We encourage frequent surface wiping in your homes or any areas in which you work,” NAIHS’s Chief Medical Officer, Loretta Christensen, said. “The symptoms for this virus typically occur between two and 14 days with an average of approximately five days. However, longer periods have been identified up to 27 in other places in the world.”
As with any respiratory illness it’s important to monitor symptoms to ensure one is not developing other health complications.
“This virus can remain a simple straightforward virus just needing home care but rare cases can result in pneumonia,” Christensen said. “Pneumonia develops after or alongside a respiratory illness. The germ gets in your body and causes an infection in your lungs.”
Many who have contracted the virus are quarantined in their home and heal at home. Most don’t need additional medical care.
“COVID-19 has been very hard on the elderly and those with complex medical problems,” Christensen said.
If one is feeling any symptoms of a respiratory illness, they should stay home and away from other family members until they are well.
“We rather you stay home unless you need medical care,” Christensen said. “No work. No school. No being in public areas that includes public transportation and public events like basketball games or flea markets.”
Health care workers are encouraging people if they are ill to avoid contact with people as best they can.
“Stay in a specific room and don’t be around other members of your household,” she said.
Should a person need medical care, call the health care facility beforehand and let them know.
“We would like you to call ahead,” she said. “So that facilities, healthcare clinic, or hospital can prepare for your arrival.”
As with all respiratory illnesses, wash your hands frequently, cover your cough and sneeze with your elbow and wipe down all surfaces. Travel does increase the risk of contracting COVID-19.