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To Limit COVID-19, Navajo Leader Says: 'Listen To Your Public Health Professionals'


Last week, the Navajo Nation reported zero new cases of COVID-19. That was a turning point in its battle against the virus. A few new cases have popped up since then, but the Navajo Nation has come a long way since springtime, when the territory was a major hot spot. In May, its per capita infection rate was one of the highest in the country. Here with us to talk about how it's reduced those numbers is Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

Welcome to the program.

JONATHAN NEZ: Thank you for having us on the show.

PFEIFFER: Could you tell us, Jonathan, about how your case numbers are looking this week? How many new cases?

NEZ: Well, as you mentioned, Sacha, we had one day, 24 hour, of no positive cases. To this day, we have tested 99,000 people here on our nation.

PFEIFFER: And do I understand that's in a population of about 175,000?

NEZ: Yes. So we have tested over 50% of our total population here on the Navajo Nation. Per capita, I think we've tested more than any state in this country and maybe some countries throughout the world, as well.

PFEIFFER: So you mentioned you've had just shy of 10,000 positive cases out of about 175,000 people. Do you know what made the Navajo Nation so vulnerable to COVID-19?

NEZ: Well, I mean, this monster that we call COVID-19 took advantage of our strengths. And one of our strengths here on the Navajo Nation is that we like to be in multigenerational homes. You know, we like to be with our elders, our grandparents, our parents, our aunts and uncles. And you know, when the virus came here onto the Navajo Nation, took off like wildfire. And many families were infected within the same household.

And early on, we didn't have contact tracers. We didn't know much about this virus. But now with people investigating - where did this virus come from? - and isolating and quarantining individuals in their communities has helped to lessen the spread here on the Navajo Nation.

And I applaud the Navajo people. The Navajo people honored and respected their leadership, those frontline warriors. And that is the reason why, you know, these numbers have decreased. And all we did, as leaders and public health professionals, is we accepted these recommendations from the CDC, NIH. And one thing that we did was we took one step more, putting those recommendations into public health emergency orders, making them law. We mandated our citizens to wear masks early on in mid-April. And now, we are still mandating that, and we also incorporated roadblocks. We also...

PFEIFFER: Were the roadblocks to keep some people in and some people out?

NEZ: Well, right now, we have a law in place that's saying that any visitor that comes on the Navajo Nation should traverse through as quickly as possible. And our tourism economy has gotten hit hard because there are no visitors allowed here on the Navajo Nation. And you know, we live in one of the most beautiful places in the United States here. But you know, the first thing is the health and well-being of our Navajo citizens.

PFEIFFER: Jonathan, do you have advice for other communities that are fighting rising COVID numbers?

NEZ: Yeah. Simple. Listen to your public health professionals. I wish many leaders throughout this country would do that, all the way up to the White House, you know - wearing masks. And you have to be a model as well. You know, you got to walk the talk. You know, if you're telling your people to do something, you better be doing it yourself. And we really focused on, OK, now you're at home. Rather than our young people have this trauma about this virus that has come through this country, let us rekindle our relations with our family members.

PFEIFFER: That's Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

Thank you for talking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

NEZ: All right. Thank you, Sacha. And ahehee. Ahehee means thank you.

PFEIFFER: You, too. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.