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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

State Sends Mobile Testing Clinic with 1,500 COVID-19 Tests To Hotspots On Navajo Nation in Utah

Photo showing two people wearing personal protective equipment are under a tent outside
Utah Navajo Health System for KUER
Utah Department of Health staff set up a mobile testing clinic in Navajo Mountain April 13-14. The state has also deployed mobile testing teams to nursing homes, correctional facilities and homeless housing units.

The Utah Department of Health has deployed a mobile COVID-19 testing task force to the Navajo Nation. It started in Navajo Mountain on Monday and will move on to Monument Valley on Thursday and Friday. So far all 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in San Juan County have been on the Navajo Nation. 

The mobile testing task force is a van with three nurses and 1,500 test kits aboard. The nurses will be able to administer hundreds of tests a day, according to the state health department, and the tests are free to anyone — regardless of tribal affiliation or state residency. 

The tests are being processed by the state lab in Salt Lake City, and results will be available in four to five days, the state health department said. The mobile unit tested over 80 people in Navajo Mountain on Monday, according to Michael Jensen, CEO of Utah Navajo Health System. He said they tested 77 more people by noon on Tuesday. 

The task force is serving two communities on the Navajo Nation in Utah where COVID-19 has been spreading, Jensen said. The task force is set up at the UNHS clinic in Navajo Mountain — where a mother and son died in late March after being sent home to self-quarantine — and will be at the UNHS clinic in Monument Valley later this week. 

Jensen said his clinics have tested around 60 people since the COVID-19 pandemic began. He added that the extensive testing this week will help stop the spread of COVID-19 by allowing UNHS to identify people who are positive and help them self-quarantine. 

“If they do come back positive, we can get them the resources they need,” Jensen said. “We can send them food baskets and call to check on them.” 

For any Native American patients who test positive, UNHS will be offering free mental health counseling over the telephone, said Shawn Begay, the clinic’s communications director.

“If you get the diagnosis, that could be life altering,“ Begay said. “And we feel like having access to licensed professionals who can help them navigate this would be exceptional.”

Hank Stevens, president of Navajo Mountain’s local government — which is called a chapter — said he is glad the mobile testing is taking place. 

“I think it’s needed out here in this Navajo Mountain community, since we’re not anywhere near hospitals or clinics that can operate at that magnitude,” Stevens said. 

The mobile testing could create a spike in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in San Juan County, according to Kirk Benge, director of San Juan Public Health, who said it’s important to put those results into context.

“I’m trying to let the community know, if our numbers jump, it’s not because 20 more people were exposed,” Benge said. “They were already exposed, but now we know about it.” 

UNHS is a private, non-profit medical provider that contracts with the Navajo Area Indian Health Service to provide medical care in San Juan County Utah. It serves both Native and non-Native patients and has out-patient clinics on the Navajo Nation in Navajo Mountain, Monument Valley and Montezuma Creek, as well as a clinic in Blanding.

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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