Navajo Nation asks tourists and other visitors to stay home as first Covid-19 cases emerge

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Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Dr. Loretta Christensen, Navajo area Indian Health Services medical director answer questions at a press conference, March 18, 2020.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez sat at a desk with Chlorox handwipes as he announced through an online broadcast that the Navajo Nation was closed to outside visitors now that two Navajo people have tested positive in the Kayenta, AZ area. 

There won’t be barricaded roads, but tourist areas are closed and he asked everyone to respect the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation by not visiting during what he called an unprecedented situation.

“The best thing to do is stay at home,” he said. 

In making the case for travelers to not come to the Navajo Nation, he noted that the first cases that emerged in New Mexico were from people who had traveled outside the state, bringing the “bug” home. He explained “bug,” saying was the best translation of virus in the Navajo language. 

Nez emphasized rapidly changing conditions, noting that recommendations from the federal government first limited gatherings to under 100, but have lowered now to groups of 10. He urged people to pay attention and to follow the advice of leaders. 

“We’re not closing down churches or ceremonies, but these are recommendations, just like we’re doing now, keeping 6 feet between us, rotating in and out of this room,” he said about how he and his colleagues were operating the press conference. 

The two people who tested positive are in stable condition at hospitals in Phoenix. They are from Chilchinbeto, AZ, which is in Navajo County. 

Dr. Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer for the Navajo area Indian Health Service, said extensive contact tracing is happening in Chilchinbeto to identify anyone who might have been exposed to the virus through contact with the people who tested positive so they can get tested. 

In total, she said there have been over 100 people tested in Navajo area IHS facilities and they have results from about 20% of those. Current testing results don’t come in for 2 to 4 days, and she said she hopes many more results will come in today.

Christensen said there is a shortage of testing supplies and getting more is a challenge. She said she hopes a test being developed nationally for what she described as molecular PCR testing will be released next week. If that happens, Gallup, Chinle, Northern Navajo, and Tsehootsooi Medical Centers have the technology to conduct those tests. That will increase capacity to test and improve turnaround time for results. “We are hopeful that is coming around very soon,” she said. 

Nez and Christensen also noted a shortage of cleaning supplies, with Christensen advising people to continue cleaning with whatever products they have. 

“We know there’s been a shortage of cleaning products available,” she said, “I just encourage people to keep cleaning with whatever products they’re able to get and to keep washing their hands throughout the day for at least 20 seconds each time.”

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