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Officials: Can IHS meet demand?


Navajo Nation officials announced Tuesday that two residents of the reservation have come down with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and are currently receiving treatment in Phoenix.

These figures may be outdated by the time this issue reaches the newsstands as the U.S. Indian Health Service is testing people in the Kayenta area who may have come in contact with these two individuals.

The first case is a 46-year-old individual who probably contacted the virus traveling off the reservation. He was diagnosed with the virus when he started exhibiting flu like symptoms and went to the Kayenta Clinic for treatment.

Tribal officials were saying last week they were hoping that the reservation being relatively isolated may delay cases here but the situation is affected by the large number of tribal members who travel off the reservation for business or other reasons.

The IHS’s chief medical officer, Rear Admiral Dr. Michael Toedt, said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon that three individuals are being treated by the IHS for the virus in Indian Country – one here, another in Portland and a third in the Great Plains area. By the time his press conference was over, his figures were outdated.

The biggest concern of IHS officials is whether the agency has enough resources to meet the demand.

“We can’t handles a hundred cases a day,” said Jay Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases. “But if those hundred cases were spread out over a month or so, there would be no problem.”
Toedt said one thing in their favor is that Congress has provided IHS with $40 million in funding to address this problem. This marks the first time that Congress has provided funds directly to the IHS to handle a problem like this.

The IHS, he said, is working with tribal leaders and directors of urban Indian centers to determine the most effective way to use these funds.

Testing of tribal members is now going on throughout the Navajo Reservation with medical personnel at the Gallup Indian Medical Center overseeing the effort. The tests at GIMC are being sent to state labs for final testing.

There are not enough test kits for the effort here but Toedt said that may not be a problem much longer since commercial labs are stepping in to prepare test kits.

President Jonathan Nez said a command post is being set up in the affected area in Chilchinbeto, Arizona, to help test individuals who may have come in contact with the first two individuals who contracted the virus.

He is urging tribal members to stay at home as much as possible and follow the steps being recommended to help prevent contraction of the virus.

This may be the key to reducing the problem on the Navajo Reservation. The IHS has been sending community health representatives to homes and chapter houses giving out information on what to do to lessen a person’s chances of getting the virus.

This includes washing one’s hands frequently under a faucet for at least 20 seconds. It also includes not touching your face with your hands.

Toedt said hand washing may be a problem for homes in the reservation that have no running water but hand gels will be made available for these cases.

The situation is expected to get worse over the next couple of weeks.

The Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise has already announced the closing of its four casinos for three weeks. If the number of cases increases sharply, reservation schools are expected to close as well.

Hundreds of schools across the U.S. have already shut down with teachers going online with their students in most cases.

Another problem that may soon be experienced on the reservation is hoarding. This problem is being seen in major cities across the country as people have bought up everything from toilet paper to basic foods, leaving grocery shelves bare.

Nez said the tribe is continuing to seek more federal funds in case it is needed.

“We are taking all proper actions at this time,” he said. “Through the power of prayer, we will overcome this pandemic as our ancestors did.”

He pointed out that while the situation is alarming, most people who get the virus get well after a time. Worldwide, the virus appears to be more serious to the very elderly and those with lung or heart problems.

About The Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan has been writing about the Navajo Nation government since 1971 and for the Navajo Times since 1976. He is currently semi-retired and is living in Torrance, California, and continues to report for the Navajo Times.


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