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Navajo Nation COVID-19 outbreak predicted to peak in May

By Jean Lotus
Navajo Nation COVID-19 outbreak predicted to peak in May
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers converted a high school in Shiprock, N.M., to a 40-bed alternative care site for the Navajo Nation to care for COVID-19 patients released from intensive care. Photo courtesy of the Navajo Nation

April 30 (UPI) -- Cases of COVID-19 in the hard-hit Navajo Nation are predicted to peak in May, a medical spokeswoman said Thursday, adding that an outbreak among transient residents of a detox center caused case numbers to spike in New Mexico.

The reservation has become a hot spot for the pandemic, with among the highest infection rates in the United States.

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That is because some 30 percent of residents live without running water and because so many residents live in multi-generational households, Dr. Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer of the Navajo Area Indian Health Service, said Thursday.

"We've seen a lot of clusters of cases among family members from the same households," Christensen said during an online meeting with Indian Health Service representatives.

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The reservation spans 27,000 square miles in an area about the size of West Virginia, crossing the borders of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

A new cluster of cases appeared in the Gallup, N.M., area -- in McKinley County -- among homeless residents, Christensen said.

"It's unfortunate there was a big outbreak from the local detox center, where people were living in a congregate setting," Christensen said.

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The most recent data available shows that the number of confirmed cases on the reservation rose by 104 Wednesday, to 1,977 with 62 deaths.

More than 11,400 tests have been administered on the Navajo Nation, which is more than one-third of the 31,707 total tests administered by the Indian Health Service in the country, according to data released by the agency Thursday.

National positive cases in Indian Country totaled 3,212, the agency said, but those numbers likely are low.

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Epidemiological modeling predicts that May 10 will be the peak of new cases on the reservation, with 200 new patients a day, half of those in intensive care, Christensen said. Hospital services on the reservation would be at capacity at that point.

Three new post-acute care sites have been built on the reservation by staff from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Army Corps of Engineers and Arizona National Guard at high schools and community centers near Chinle, Ariz., and near Shiprock and Gallup, N.M.

Patients will be released from intensive care to recover in these multi-bed sites, receiving oxygen and medication, along with basic care, until they can be discharged to home or to temporary housing, Christensen said.

Even as Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has started to ease state stay-in-place lockdown orders, Navajo Nation residents will remain on shelter-at-home orders and weekend curfews for two more weeks, until May 17. The health department has ordered no one to leave home without a mask.

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Meanwhile government employees were distributing drive-up groceries and firewood in remote areas of the reservation.

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