FARMINGTON – During a visit Wednesday to the Navajo Nation, the Indian Health Services director announced additional funding has been allocated to its COVID-19 fight and emphasized the importance of social distancing and public health orders.
Rear Adm. Michael Weahkee said he made the trip to evaluate Indian Health Services’ local and regional response to the coronavirus pandemic. He said the agency had allocated an additional $234 million in COVID-19 funding to the Navajo Nation.
“It’s an opportunity to see firsthand how we’re doing,” he said during a news conference at the Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock, New Mexico. He said he’d take the information back to Washington, D.C., to share with the White House task force and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Weahkee said use of IHS hospital resources on the Navajo Nation peaked April 24 and April 25, but he emphasized the importance of adhering to social distancing. He also wanted “to make sure it isn’t an indication to the public that everything is OK.”
Weahkee said 14.6% of the Navajo Nation population had been tested, making it one of the highest test percentages. “It far surpasses most states and other countries,” he said. “Most states have as a target to be able to test 2 to 3%. The fact that we have reached 14.6% is especially noteworthy.”
On Tuesday, Weahkee met with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer in Gallup, New Mexico. During his meeting, Weahkee said the Navajo leaders discussed the challenges of instilling a “foot on the pedal” mentality among the public toward social-distancing and hand-washing practices.
Weahkee said Nez was “very vocal about the need for resources in Indian County and the need to get resources out quicker.” The IHS director added it was important to ensure IHS was a vocal participant in Washington, D.C.
Nez and Lizer also expressed a growing concern about the impact summer tourism could have on the spread of the virus on the Navajo Nation, after Grand Canyon National Park’s opening over Memorial Day weekend.
“It’s definitely of concern,” Weahkee said.
During his visit, the director also had a conference call with New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to discuss testing capacity and contact tracing in the state. Lujan Grisham previously released a plan for the state requiring 650 contact tracers, considered an effective tool in managing the spread of the virus.
Weahkee said IHS is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to train community health representatives to be contact tracers on the Navajo Nation. One of the challenges to effective community tracing is shortening the amount of time it takes health providers to relay test results, Weahkee said.
Dr. Christopher Percy, director of community health at IHS’ Shiprock facility said it had been doing contact tracing since Day 1 of the first COVID-19 cases. Percy said it wasn’t uncommon to test a whole family after one person tests positive and find asymptomatic patients.
“Testing everyone in the house helps to manage the virus and also helps the family to manage,” he said.
At the Shiprock medical center, a team of 25 to 30 public health nurses works seven days a week to call all the patients and deliver test results, Percy said. He estimated they make hundreds of calls a day, ranging from 18 to 20 minutes each. Percy said the goal for the Shiprock region is to have 58 people working as contact tracers.
On Tuesday, there were 48 new cases of COVID-19 and one additional death reported, according to the Navajo Department of Health, Navajo Epidemiology Center and the Navajo Area Indian Health Service. It brings the total number of cases to 4,842, with 158 coronavirus-related deaths and 24,116 negative tests reported.