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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.

As COVID-19 Cases Rise On Navajo Nation In Utah, Clinic Steps Up To Help

Photo of people wearing masks and standing outside
Sahar Khadjenoury
Pete Sands (middle) and volunteers deliver food boxes to families. Over a hundred food boxes were donated to UNHS by the Salt Lake Air Protectors.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in San Juan County more than tripled in the past week — and most of those are on the Navajo Nation. The number of cases went from 11 on April 15 to 34 on Wednesday, and only two of those are off the reservation.

The spike in cases is due to mobile testing performed on the Navajo Nation last week by the Utah Department of Health. Over 1,200 people from Utah and Arizona were tested, and the Utah Navajo Health System is handling the results and providing support for those who test positive.

“We’re still receiving the results,” said Shawn Begay, head of communications for UNHS, which operates three clinics on the Navajo Nation. “I would say anywhere between half and three quarters have come back.” 

Begay said about half the people tested for COVID-19 live in Utah and, so far, the results have been a relief.

“Percentage-wise, the number of positives we’re getting are relatively low,” he said. “Up to this point, the whole Navajo Nation was sitting at a high rate.” 

For those who do test positive, UNHS does contact tracing and offers quarantine support, including home deliveries. 

“We bring food, we bring tissue, soap, detergent, dish soap, and shampoo,” said Pete Sands, who’s helping coordinate the services. “And we’ll be hauling water next week too. So It’s a pretty big operation.” 

Photo of a man wearing a mask and pulling food out of boxes
Credit Sahar Khadjenoury / UNHS
Pete Sands sorts food at a UNHS clinic. He and his team have delivered around 500 boxes of food to vulnerable families on the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation so far.

Sands was originally hired in February to do public relations for UNHS, but his job has shifted to coordinating food deliveries, as well as drive-through food banks, each week to help Navajo families in Utah stay home and limit trips to the grocery store. 

“It started as a really small operation,” said Sands. “But as more positive cases came to the reservation, our numbers kept increasing.” 

So far, Sands said, they’ve made around 500 home deliveries and served hundreds of families at a drive-through food bank each week. 

“People who test positive is one of our main concerns,” he said. “But also people who are in rural and desolate areas, which are usually elderly people. Both those groups are who we aim towards helping.” 

Sands said UNHS is footing the bill for some of the supplies, but the clinics are also taking in donations from groups like Charity Anywhere in Salt Lake City and the Sharehouse in Cortez, Colo. And UNHS employees have been volunteering to sort food and make deliveries. 

“I'm very thankful for the health system UNHS,” he said. “They’ve really backed everything fully. It takes a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of coordinating and collaborating to make this happen.” 

Photo of three people wearing mask in a parking lot
Credit Sahar Khadjenoury / UNHS
Pete Sands and volunteers prepare for a drive-through food bank at the UNHS clinic in Montezuma Creek.

UNHS CEO Michael Jensen said the clinic will continue to fund the program as long as possible, but that funding is limited. 

“Right now we’re doing okay,” Jensen said. “But if [COVID-19] went through summer into fall, we’re not funded well enough to keep doing that.”

He said the clinic has received some federal funding to combat COVID-19, but that the food delivery program has been funded out of the clinic’s operational budget and through online donations. 

“If it’s marked for COVID, 100% of that money will go there,” he said. “We have no administrative fees. And people have been very generous. It’s awesome to see.” 

UNHS is also providing free mental health counseling to any tribal members who test positive for COVID-19.

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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