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Free COVID-19 Testing Event In Blanding Draws Large Out-Of-State Crowd, But Few Locals

Two nurses wearing protective gowns talk to people in cars in a parking lot.
Kate Groetzinger
The Utah Navajo Health System provided staff and tents for the event. It is the third free testing event the health system has helped put on in San Juan County.

BLANDING — While COVID-19 is ravaging the Navajo Nation in San Juan County, there have been fewer than 10 confirmed cases in Blanding, where less than 200 people have been tested for the disease. 

In an effort to increase the testing rate here, public health officials and local health care providers arranged a free testing event. But instead of a large number of locals, most of the people arriving were from out of town. 

Out of 706 people who showed up for testing on Thursday, less than 300 were from Blanding. While most came from elsewhere in the county and other parts of Utah, 114 arrived from out of state, including one as far away as South Dakota. 

While testing is widely available now in New Mexico and Colorado, many people drove from neighboring states for the free testing event. Most came from Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, including a nurse named Jo, who declined to give her last name. 

She drove two and a half hours from Farmington, New Mexico to get tested in Blanding because she thinks she might have COVID-19. 

“I think I was exposed at work,” she said. “I mean, I feel like I’m having a hard time breathing, but I’m not sure if it’s my anxiety.”

Jo said she couldn’t get tested in Farmington because she didn’t have the right symptoms. But that wasn’t a problem at the Blanding event, because the State of Utah donated enough tests for anyone who showed up.

Blanding City Manager Jeremy Redd said the low local turnout could be because people don’t believe the virus is present in their community. So far, there have been less than five confirmed cases in Blanding. 

“Blanding hasn’t been hit that hard,” he said. “But our neighbors have, so it causes pause for us.” 

Sharon Smith, of Blanding, was one of the locals who was tested. She said she’s been at home for weeks, because she’s elderly and has diabetes. But she went shopping for the first time this week, and she wanted to know if she may have contracted COVID-19. 

“I don't think I have it,” she said. “But I don't want to give it to anyone else if I do.”

San Juan Health Director Kirk Benge said he believes there are more cases of COVID-19 in Blanding than the numbers show, since residents of nearby Montezuma Creek shop in the Blanding grocery store regularly. 

A similar free testing event hosted at the beginning of May by the Utah Navajo Health System in Montezuma Creek, which is on the Navajo Nation, showed that COVID-19 has spread throughout that community, which now has over 50 confirmed cases of the disease. 

Still, Benge said the free testing performed in Blanding this week will give him a better sense of what’s going on there. Even with the low turnout, the event more than doubled the town’s testing rate. 

“I didn’t have as much local participation from Blanding and Monticello as I would have liked,” he said. “But I think we had enough participation to guide our decisions.”

Those decisions include things like opening up the public swimming pool in Blanding and resuming little league, according to Benge, who said the test results will be available early next week.

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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