What the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region can learn from Navajo Nation’s fight against COVID-19

Navajo Nation’s Monument Valley Park (Creative Commons photo by Bernard Gagnon)

Indigenous communities, like those in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, are having a tough time with COVID-19. The Navajo Nation got the pandemic under control within a few months, but now they are experiencing a second wave.

“The clusters and outbreaks that we’re dealing with in this second wave, we can trace them all back to specific family gatherings, and celebrations, and ceremonies,” said Dr. Loretta Christensen, Chief Medical Officer for the Navajo Area Indian Health Services.

Navajo Nation has gone into a three-week lockdown that started on Monday.

Shawnell Damon, who is leading the Navajo COVID-19 epidemiology effort, said that they are telling people to hold back on gatherings and ceremonies but not banning them completely. She is telling people that when they do get together, to do it carefully and in smaller groups.

“And what does that mean?” said Damon. “So, gathering safely means if you’re actually going to visit another family, still wear a mask. You still stay 6 feet apart, and you might open a window or leave the door open to have circulated air. Now it’s getting colder, so now we’re trying to urge that if you are going to visit other families, you still wear a mask. So instead of banning gatherings, we have to teach them how to gather safely, and we’re still trying to learn that.”

Navajo homes, much like those in the Y-K Delta, can be small and crowded. When someone gets infected, the Navajo Nation springs into action to isolate them from the rest of the family. They have used community centers and hotels to house the sick, but they have also taken a unique step to provide isolation while keeping the infected close to family.

“We also had camping kits that were given out, that a person could stay outside near the family,” said Damon. “Because a lot of times they don’t want to be away from their family, especially when they’re sick or trying to heal.”

Both Christiansen and Damon said that the key to getting the pandemic under control the first time around was being proactive and getting tribal members on board quickly.

The measures they put in place included curfews and mandatory mask wearing. Navajo Nation also enforced those mandates. Christensen said that enforcement was tough because the tribe does not have a huge tribal police force.

“However, there have been roadblocks. There have been several fines for being out after curfew. So I think we did a good job of enforcing what we had put out as public health orders,” Christensen said.