Navajo Nation locks down for 3 weeks because of coronavirus surge

(CNN) - The Navajo Nation has begun a three-week lockdown after officials found COVID-19 was spreading uncontrolled through 34 communities.

People can only leave their homes for emergencies or essentials; government offices and businesses must close. Learning moves online.

Gas stations and grocery stores can open but under limited hours and capacity, using strict sanitizing procedures.

Roadblocks limit off-nation travel. Tourists and non-residents can pass through but not stop.

Face masks are already mandated. People are now encouraged to wear them indoors with family.

“We’re like an island in Navajo Nation. So of course, if you have record breaking numbers all around us, it will come in to that nation or that area. And that’s what’s happening today,” President Jonathan Nez said.

Aggressive testing continues, with more than 50% of residents on the Navajo Nation tested and more than 250 contact tracers working to prevent more transmission.

Health officials have identified sites to quarantine thousands and places to add hundreds of hospital beds.

Native utility crews race to bring electricity to some of the 30% of Navajo who live without it, saving them going in search of firewood or fuel, and running water to the 40% who have none, to make hand washing and hygiene easier.

Last spring, COVID-19 devastated the sprawling 27,000-square-mile Navajo reservation that stretches across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Per capita Navajo infection rates surpassed New York and New Jersey.

Darlene Dixson lost her sister to coronavirus. “She went in to get tested, and she said she tested positive,” she said.

Just two weeks later, Dixson listened helplessly over the phone as her younger sister’s COVID battle ended in a distant hospital room.

“I was talking to her and I was telling her, ‘Sissy, you can’t go. You have to come home to us.’ By 5:45, you just hear that tone of her heart stopping and the doctor came on the phone and said she was gone,” she said.

Navajo health officials warn of the virus' uncontrolled spread in 34 communities and fear an outbreak as bad as spring or worse.

“The cases just keep increasing. There is no plateau, no flattening,” said Dr. Jill Jim, Navajo Department of Health executive director.

Last time, the Navajo sent their most serious cases off reservation to larger hospitals in New Mexico and Arizona. Health volunteers poured in.

That’s not likely this time. Hospitals nationwide are struggling to find beds for their own critical cases.

The Navajo are preparing to fight alone.

The strict lockdown has so far received little pushback, perhaps because even those who have already endured agonizing loss realize there is still so much more the Navajo could lose.

“It’s to keep us to keep us safe. To keep us alive, that is what the lockdown is for,” Dixson said.

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