ST. GEORGE — Extending across northeast Arizona, parts of New Mexico and Utah and occupying a space of over 27,000 square miles – bigger than the state of West Virginia – the Navajo Nation is home to the nation’s largest Native American tribe. The Navajo Nation’s 350,000 citizens are spread out across the reservation in a patchwork of tight knit communities and Navajo chapters.
As the coronavirus has spread across the United States, the Navajo Nation has been disproportionately affected by large numbers of per capita infections and deaths, as well as sparse access to needed medical, hygiene and household supplies.
According to a recent Washington Post report, as of Sunday, 3,122 Navajo had tested positive for COVID-19, out of about 17,000 tests, and 100 people had died.
In an effort to help alleviate some of the immediate supply shortages and bridge the short-term need gaps, local residents and organizations have started collecting and delivering items to chapters and communities throughout the Navajo Nation.
‘When the virus broke out, most of the small convenience stores were cut off’
According to reports regarding the spread of COVID-19 through the Navajo Nation, the likely source of the outbreak has been traced to a large gathering at the Chilchinbeto Church of the Nazarene Zone Rally in Chilchinbeto, Arizona, on March 7.
Dozens of people from many of the Navajo chapters attended the rally and were potentially exposed to at least one person who later tested positive for the coronavirus, a March report in the Navajo Times, said.
Dr. Christina Thuet, a pediatrician from Salt Lake City who has spent much of her time living on the Navajo reservation with her husband, an emergency medicine physician who still commutes to reservation hospitals, said that from the Chilchinbeto gathering, the virus “tore through the reservation.”
Thuet told St. George News that the large influx of Navajo who came for the gathering created a hot spot for the virus, which spread quickly throughout the population when people returned to their communities.
Thuet is the recent founder and director of With Love, From Strangers, an organization that is just shy of two weeks old but that is already spearheading collection efforts for medical supplies, personal protection equipment and care packages for families on the reservation.
Thuet said several factors, including a lack of running water – 30% of households don’t have running water – multigenerational living arrangements and higher rates of asthma, diabetes and heart disease all contribute to why the virus has taken such a heavy toll on the Navajo Nation.
A shortage of stores and a disrupted supply chain compounded the problem even more.
Washington County resident Darci Hansen, who has spent years living with and near the Navajo people, said that at the early onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, similar to the nationwide rush to panic-buy critical items, residents of the Navajo chapters soon found that items such as cleaning supplies, fresh food, hay for livestock and even pet food were hard to locate.
“There are few ‘stores’ on the Navajo Nation,” Hansen said. “When the virus broke out, most of the small convenience stores were cut off from deliveries.”
She said the story was the same for medical facilities, which were still lacking basic personal protective equipment as virus cases continued to rise.
“When the virus initially hit the Navajo land, one of my friends, a nurse, said their facility was waiting on PPE,” she said. “I thought, ‘How can you wait on PPE when you have cases coming in now?'”
Distributing the personal protective equipment to larger Navajo chapters became the priority for many.
Hansen said that perhaps the most devastating result of the virus on the Navajo people is the potential loss of their elders.
“These are the people who have held tightly on to their traditions and tried to instill preservation of the culture to the rising generations,” she said, adding that if elders die from the coronavirus, the next generation would be responsible for carrying on those traditions. “The Navajo people are tenacious; they have been triumphant over elimination for centuries. It will be up to the next generations to secure the traditions, culture and future of the beautiful Navajo people.”
Hansen said she considers many of the Navajo people not just friends, but family, so when the two women got word that their friends were not receiving needed supplies, they both stepped up in their respective ways, garnering support from the larger community in the process.
Two powerful words: ‘You came’
Thuet’s organization, With Love, From Strangers, started after she reached out to a few friends to see if she could get some handmade face masks for Navajo households. She said that many Navajo families live in the same home or same close group of homes with family members of multiple generations, making it hard to self-isolate and slow the spread.
Her initial request for masks quickly snowballed to the point of friends and various organizations helping to collect face shields, hospital gowns, masks, hygiene supplies and more.
With Love, From Strangers partnered with several area organizations, including the Southern Utah University Center for Rural Health, which has been instrumental in collecting donations from the Iron County community, and Angel Flight West, a nonprofit organization that arranges free non-emergency air travel for children and adults who need to travel long distances to access medical care and other essential services.
Since beginning collections two weeks ago, With Love, From Strangers has collected enough supplies for 30 flights that have delivered supplies across the Navajo Nation.
Angel Flight West outreach coordinator Joanne Brattain told St. George News that on Friday, four flights left from the Cedar City Airport and delivered supplies to Chinle and Tuba City in Arizona.
“These supplies are going directly to the front-line medical workers and directly into the hands of families,” Brattain said.
While Thuet works toward receiving official nonprofit designation for her organization, she has set up a website and continues to partner with community members and organizations throughout Utah – and the country – to fill needed gaps and get supplies to where they are needed – and immediately when they are needed, she said.
“Bringing all these people together that are using their different ways and resources snowballed into 30 planes full of things and thousands of pounds of supplies going directly into the hands of where it is needed,” she said.
Hansen has also done her own part, rallying the Southern Utah community to help a remote Navajo chapter of about 350 families where one of her friends lives.
“When my friend in a remote northern region of the Nation shared that her chapter had not been able to acquire relief, I felt compelled to run whatever supplies I could get my hands on out to her immediately,” she said, adding that her friend gave a list of five essential items: sanitizer and cleaning supplies, masks, nonperishable food, water or water storage containers and feed for livestock and pets.
Hansen began with a small request to those close to her for cleaning supplies and food items, but the request soon turned into so much more.
Hansen described the community’s response in a message to St. George News:
I texted some neighbors for sanitizer or wipes; then asked family and friends for specific food items. The Southern Utah Sewing for Lives Covid Response Team readily offered 400 masks and Kris Neal, who is known in Washington County as the ‘feral cat angel,’ came to the rescue with a large donation of both cat and dog food.
With the instant generosity of people, I placed a further request on my Facebook page asking ‘friends’ for the remaining items – they delivered in a big way. With the help of Staheli Farms, I was able to order mainstay food items in bulk. My husband, Steve, and our team at Hansen’s Landscape funded the trip and additional items I felt would be essential. In less than 48 hours, Steve and I collected and delivered approximately 9,000 pounds of supplies.
Hansen praised the effort of the community and thanked them for their help and generosity, but she said she doesn’t see her efforts as anything more than helping friends gain access to commodities that have been hard to come by.
“They have never asked me for anything,” Hansen said, “so I saw my friend’s request to see if I could round up masks and cleaning supplies as no different than my kids’ or 83-year-old mom’s need for something.”
She said it wasn’t an example of her friends asking for a “hand out.” It was merely giving a hand up to a people she dearly loves.
“They are my people,” Hansen said.
As neither Hansen nor her husband have been tested yet for COVID-19 and do not know if they are asymptomatic carriers, they delivered and unloaded the supplies without any direct contact with her friends in the Navajo chapter, but Hansen said it was still a powerful exchange of friendship.
“My friend, who I would not allow her or the community to assist in unloading for their own protection, sent me a text as she looked out of her window. It contained two powerful words I won’t forget: ‘You came.'”
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