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Navajo Nation Reports Rapid Spread Of COVID-19


The coronavirus spread rapidly throughout crowded cities in this country, but one rural area has more COVID cases per capita than nearly any other place in the country - the Navajo Nation. More than 100 people in the tribal community have died from the virus, and over 3,000 have tested positive. The Navajo reservation is almost as big as the state of South Carolina, and on much of it, there aren't paved roads or running water. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez is on the line with us from Window Rock, Ariz., which is the seat of the Navajo tribal government. President Nez, thank you so much for making time this morning.

Are you with us?

JONATHAN NEZ: Thank you, Rachel, for having us on the show. And just to give you a little update on what's happening here on the Navajo Nation through our epidemiology team...


NEZ: ...We have tested over 20,258 of our Navajo people, and 3,245 have tested positive for COVID-19.

MARTIN: So that number's even higher. Yeah.

NEZ: Fifteen-thousand-two-hundred-and-fourteen have tested negative, and we have 103 deaths on the Navajo Nation.

MARTIN: Thank you. Thank you. So the situation getting worse, really. Can you help us understand why the infection rate has been so high within the Navajo Nation? I mean, it's roughly the size of West Virginia, but just 175,000 people live there. People are spread out, presumably. Why is the infection spreading?

NEZ: Well, Rachel, we're testing very aggressively here on the Navajo Nation. The statistics that I just mentioned, over 20,258 tests given here on the Navajo Nation, we have about - have tested about 8% of our population, compared to 2% - a little bit over 2% of the U.S. population. So we are testing very aggressively.

I know that people are saying, per capita, we're higher than New York and New Jersey. But we need to also keep in mind that, you know, we have been getting a lot of test kits here on the Navajo Nation and testing our citizens with the Abbott ID NOW analyzers and the older type of rapid test kits, the swab tests. Those swab tests ones take about 48 hours before we get the results while the Abbott ID NOW takes less than 15 minutes to give us a result.

MARTIN: So you're getting quick results, which is pushing your numbers up. The federal government has agreed to provide $8 billion to tribes. That was in March. Your portion of that money was $600 million. How did you spend it? Was it on testing? Where did it go?

NEZ: Well, Rachel, we just got that a week ago. You know, we had to take the federal government to court so that they can release those dollars. And, you know, the CARES Act was approved and signed into law over seven weeks ago. While the rest of the country, municipalities and townships and counties and states, have been utilizing those dollars, tribal governments - 574 tribes - just last week received their money. And of that $8 billion, only 60% of that total amount was given to tribes. So we're still going to be waiting for the 40%. And it's all because of the question of whether Alaska Native Corporations are allowed to utilize these dollars.

And so we are in the process now here on the Navajo Nation to do an expenditure plan of how these dollars are going to be spent. We're going to be putting it into personal protection equipment. We're going to also put money for hazard pay, we're hoping. And we're also looking at the immediate needs of food and supplies to our Navajo people. You know, clear across the country...


NEZ: ...You have seen food distributions happening, and we want to do something...


NEZ: ...Similar here on the Navajo Nation.

MARTIN: We will check back with you on that. Obviously, lots of moving parts as you try to meet the needs of your community. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, thank you so much for your time.

NEZ: Thank you so much, Rachel, for having us on the show. (Non-English language spoken). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.