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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.

Navajo Nation Will Begin To Reopen Based On High Vaccination Rate And Falling COVID-19 Cases

A woman leans over a table in the foreground, and another woman stands next to a car next to the table. There are red sandstone formations in the background.
Kate Groetzinger
/
KUER
The Utah Navajo Health System ran a vaccination drive-through in Monument Valley on Feb. 11. The event was open to anyone over the age of 16.

The Navajo Nation announced it will begin lifting COVID-19 restrictions on March 15, due to a steep decline in cases across the reservation.

Navajo President Jonathan Nez explained the new measures in a Facebook video Wednesday night. He showed a chart of the falling positive COVID-19 cases on the reservation and explained that the reopening will be gradual.

“The thing that’s different about this time around is we have vaccination,” Nez said. “It pushes back against the virus’s spread in our communities.”

Starting Monday, businesses on the reservation will be allowed to reopen at 25% capacity and people can gather in groups of 10 or less to perform traditional ceremonies. A daily curfew remains in place from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., and the reservation’s roads and park remain closed to visitors. Casinos will be allowed to reopen only to Navajo patrons.

Around 70% of eligible residents on the reservation have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 30% are fully vaccinated, according to Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer of the Navajo Area Indian Health Service.

She said that’s helping stop the spread of the virus.

“It’s been extremely impactful for our population, and we’re very grateful for the amount of vaccine we’ve received and the amount of people who stepped up to get the vaccine,” she said.

Active cases on the Navajo Nation have been falling since January, when the vaccine roll out began.

A graph shows the number of positive cases over time. There’s a sharp decline toward the end.
Navajo Department of Health
The Navajo Nation Department of Health reported a seven-day average of 13 positive COVID-19 cases on Mar. 9. That’s down from a high of 233 on Jan. 12.

The same trend is occurring in San Juan County, where the reservation overlaps with Utah.

While San Juan County has historically had the highest mortality and hospitalization rate due to COVID-19 in the state, it now has the highest vaccination rate and the third fewest new cases per capita, behind Wayne and Piute counties. That’s all according to data from the Utah Department of Health.

San Juan Public Health reported fewer than five active cases in each of the communities on the reservation in Utah as of March 9.

Byron Clarke is with the Utah Navajo Health System, which operates three clinics on the reservation. He said the health system has given out almost 5,000 first doses since January, and he believes that’s led to a sharp decrease in cases.

“In February, when we saw case numbers decline, we had a cautious optimism. But as we moved into March, it shifted to a more solid optimism,” Clarke said.

He said the health system supports the tribal reopening plan.

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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