New orders reinforce public safety measures
While the Navajo Nation will not yet be implementing lockdowns or curfews, it is tightening up safety measures in a big way due to the high transmission of the COVID-19, driven by the Omicron variant.
On Tuesday, President Jonathan Nez announced the release of two new Public Health Emergency Orders, one renewing the Nation’s “Safer at Home” policy (No. 2022-01) and the other ensuring schools are following strict COVID-19 safety protocols (No. 2022-02).
The orders state that the Navajo Nation is experiencing “an extreme upward trajectory” of COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron variant surge, that breakthrough infections are expected, and vaccinated people can transmit the virus even if they don’t have symptoms.
“We are reaffirming that the safest place to be is at home,” said Jill Jim, health director for the Navajo Department of Health, in a town hall on Tuesday.
In addition to recommending vaccinations and boosters, the order states Navajo people must continue to exercise caution when engaging in public activities and practice everyday preventive measures, including wearing masks, social (physical) distancing, disinfecting high-touched surfaces, avoiding travel and unnecessary public gatherings, and washing hands for 20 seconds.
Those infected with COVID-19, have symptoms consistent with COVID-19, or who have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 are required to “stay home and away from other people.”
Travel ‘high risk’
“The new public health emergency orders issued by the Navajo Department of Health are in response to the rise in COVID-19 cases here on the Navajo Nation,” Nez said. “If you go into public places, our health officials strongly recommend wearing two masks due to the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant.”
The mandate for wearing masks in public places, which has been in place since the beginning of the pandemic, is still enforced.
The orderalso includes guidelines for travel, including delaying travel until you are fully vaccinated, avoiding all unnecessary travel, using alternative communications methods such as virtual or telephonic for meetings and appointments, testing before and after traveling as a precaution, and staying home if you are sick or in quarantine unless seeking medical attention.
Jim said people should travel and gather only when necessary.
“Traveling off the reservation is (a) high risk,” she said.
On Tuesday, Arizona reported 14,160 new cases, Utah reported 9,813 new cases, and New Mexico reported 2,932.
NDOH also reported 19 confirmed Omicron cases on the Navajo Nation within the Chinle, Kayenta, Utah and Tuba City service units and Sage Memorial Hospital.
However, the number is likely much higher since genomic sequencing is done through random sampling, and Omicron is now dominant throughout the U.S.
The order also limits gatherings to a maximum of 15 persons for social, recreational, and religious activities.
“These measures are intended to further ensure an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic by restricting movement of individuals on the Nation to limit contact to prevent the spread of the virus and minimize the strain on medical response capabilities,” the order states.
Jim said with COVID-19 cases skyrocketing, the Navajo area health-care system is very vulnerable.
“We’re very short-staffed,” she said.
Navajo businesses must continue to address safety measures through policy and procedures to ensure physical distancing between personnel, customers and members of the public, which means maintaining a 6-foot distance between persons.
Temperature screening for customers is optional but highly encouraged.
Businesses must also provide standards for how to respond to suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19 among employees and are instructed to contact a healthcare facility immediately in the event of a COVID-19 case to consult about the next steps.
Keeping schools safe
A public health order declares a return to “red status,” for schools, which includes provisions to offer hybrid (in-person and virtual) or virtual learning, implement stricter physical distancing measures, limit indoor and outdoor sports event attendance to 25% occupancy, and require students, staff, and visitors to stay home if they are sick.
“Physical distancing should be more aggressive,” Jim said. “Schools need to address diagnostic testing, hygiene, and cleaning, and ensure contact tracing requirements are met.”
All schools are required to comply with the Navajo Nation COVID-19 Safe Schools Framework and the Navajo Nation School Reopening Plan (https://www.navajoreopening.navajo-nsn.gov/COVID-19-Safe-Schools-Framework).
“We are requiring that schools follow these public health emergency orders,” Nez said. “Hybrid or virtual learning shall be offered to the maximum extent possible. If you choose to keep your child at home, they can do that and should not be counted as absent, especially now in this surge.”
All confirmed COVID-19 cases and exposures within Navajo Nation businesses, government offices, and schools are mandated to be promptly reported by calling the NDOH Health Command Operations Center at 928-871-7014 or by using the HCOC portal (https://www.ndoh.navajo-nsn.gov/COVID-19) and notifying the nearest Indian Health Service unit or Tribal Health Organization.
This week, Nez also issued an executive order requiring all Navajo Nation employees to provide proof of COVID-19 booster shot by Jan. 24.
If an employee is not fully vaccinated and does not get a booster shot, the employee is required to submit a negative COVID-19 test result at least once every 14 days.
Nez previously issued an executive order requiring all employees to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 29, 2021, or be subject to mandatory COVID-19 testing.