TUBA CITY – It’s a familiar sight to anyone who knows the Navajo Nation: red sandstone, yellow-tinged sagebrush, a blue sky canopy that meets a protective ring of mountain peaks, with sheep and cattle dotting the fields.
A newer addition to the timeless landscape is a series of hand-lettered turquoise signs along southbound U.S. 89 near Tuba City. “Native people are resilient, resourceful, kind, and most of all hopeful,” one says.
The messaging reflects how far the Navajo Nation has come in battling and recovering from COVID-19, and how it remains vigilant against a disease that has taken the lives of 1,557 people on the Navajo Nation.
In mid-2020, the Navajo Nation had the highest per-capita infection rate of COVID-19 in the U.S. Although the infection rate remains high, tribal leaders continue to practice mitigation efforts while many parts of the U.S. have relaxed restrictions.
Reflecting on the pandemic
Residents of Tuba City, nearly 80 miles north of Flagstaff and one of the largest towns on the Navajo Nation, reflected on the past 21 months of dealing with the pandemic and experiencing loss and hardship while gaining a greater understanding of what “community” means.
“It was a big scare at that time,” Valentina Nez of Tonalea said as she waited in her car to receive a booster shot at the Tuba City Regional Health Care mobile medical unit. “You don’t know who has COVID, and you want to protect yourself, so you think about your family as well as your co-workers.”
Nez, who has received two doses of the Moderna vaccine, was afraid of coming into contact with people who may have been infected, some of whom seemed to have little concern for their safety.
“It was definitely heartbreaking, knowing that there were a lot of people losing their lives to this virus, something we don’t know anything about,” she said, describing the effects it had to her social life and noting that she had removed herself from social media because it was damaging her mental health.
Shaydreanna Jackson said her brother died in July, although not from COVID-19. But the pandemic still affected her family.
“Not being able to have everyone – his close family friends and relatives – there was hard,” she said. “Not being able to see everyone and for them to not be there for my sisters and I was hard.”
Jackson was waiting to receive a booster shot and was accompanied by her son, Koah, who received the Pfizer vaccine for ages 5 to 11. He said it wasn’t so bad, even though he’s normally afraid of needles.
Although Jackson lives in Tuba City, she is Hualapai, who, along with the Havasupai people, live in and near the Grand Canyon, about 50 miles northeast of Kingman.
“We’re already small as is, and we’ve had a lot of cases out there and it’s taken quite a bit of our elders,” Jackson said. “That’s scary because our language already isn’t spoken.”
The Hualapai Tribe has had 206 positive cases overall, with a population of 1,621, according to data from the tribe’s COVID-19 tracker.
To date, Arizona has reported 1.3 million cases of COVID-19, with more than 40,000 on the Navajo Nation, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services and the Navajo Department of Health.
An incident command structure tent at the Tuba City Fairgrounds on the eastern end of town was erected to act as a potential overflow triage area for Tuba City Regional Health Care Corp., according to Joe Baca, health care social worker and counselor for the hospital, but it’s now used as a staging area for distribution of groceries and other necessities.
Baca recalled the tent was an eyesore, with bright floodlights, imposing size and the steady churn of helicopters arriving and leaving. It initially stirred feelings of worry and fear among tribal members.
“I’m thinking, ‘It’s only a matter of time before that (tent) is filled up with people; what do we do then?’” Baca said. “A part of me was like, ‘There’s no end to this.’”
What was initially an ominous sight became a hub for distributing supplies for those who were unable to leave their homes for groceries, water and firewood, which is used extensively on the remote reservation.
Before the vaccines became available, Baca was afraid he wouldn’t survive an infection. He feared for his and his family’s safety and well-being.
His fiance, Britney; sister-in-law, Michelle; and his sons, Benicio and DeAndre, were able to remain home and attend school remotely, but Baca – who was heavily involved in community outreach and supply distribution – kept working.
“Early on in the distribution, it was so dire,” he said. “I was so afraid we were going to run into somebody in their home setting, their hogan or their housing structure, and they were going to be gone. That was my worst fear: ‘Maybe nobody got to them, nobody helped them, they got sick or they didn’t have wood or basic food.’ I’m glad to say we never ran into anything like that.”