Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
He was coughing and complaining of dizziness.
When the man was taken to a hospital, doctors determined he had COVID-19. It was early April, and Gallup’s sprawling detox center had its first confirmed case of the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
And officials at the Na’nizhoozhi Center Inc. soon learned the patient had come into contact with at least 170 other people, potentially exposing them to the virus. Doctors have told the Journal that 110 of those people have tested positive, although an Indian Health Service official said it was about one-third of the people exposed.
In any case, medical officials say the outbreak contributed to the high number of COVID-19 cases in McKinley County, reverberating throughout the community and surrounding areas, as patients returned to their homes and came into contact with family members before they knew they had been exposed.
In one case, a man who had been exposed at the center returned home to his relatives on the Navajo Nation, infecting four of them with the virus. His mother, a woman in her 70s, died.
“I’m really upset,” the man’s cousin, Tammy Arnold, told the Journal. “I think my aunt would have still been here.”
The New Mexico Department of Health isn’t saying how many cases can be tied to the detox center, but McKinley County and surrounding areas have emerged as COVID-19 hot spots. McKinley County now has 1,864 cases of COVID-19 – 31% of New Mexico’s cases – despite only having 3.5% of the state’s population.
Officials with the Indian Health Service have said the high number of virus cases in McKinley County can be at least partly attributed to the outbreak at the detox center.
“At Gallup Indian Medical Center, we saw a large jump because of an unsheltered population being exposed in a congregate situation,” Dr. Loretta Christensen, the chief medical officer for the Navajo Area Indian Health Service, said in a phone call with reporters on April 30. “A lot of positive cases from that one event really increased Gallup’s numbers.”
Earlier that month, on April 16, when Roselyn Tso, the director of the Navajo Area Indian Health Service, updated the Navajo Nation Council’s Naabik’íyáti’ Committee on the outbreak, she expressed alarm that only about half of the exposed people had been located, saying they weren’t the easiest population to find or persuade to take precautions once they are identified.
“So that means these individuals could continue to walk around and travel around,” Tso said. “Not only in the Gallup area, but if any of these individuals live in the communities out on the reservation … now we’re trying to figure out how do we try to get information back to their families or their children or mothers and fathers and so forth.”
At that time, 81 people had been found and 59 – more than 70% – tested positive for coronavirus. Since then IHS officials say they found and tested about 90% of the people who had been exposed.
‘A last celebration’
In late March, when bars were closed as a consequence of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s public health emergency order aimed at stemming the spread of coronavirus, the detox center in Gallup had an influx of patients. The 150-bed center, founded in 1992, takes in people who police officers find intoxicated on the streets of Gallup, and it can hold them up to 72 hours.
“That day, we had 98 people that came in,” said Dr. Kevin Foley, the center’s executive director. “They wanted to have a last celebration before all the bars started closing.”
Foley said the Na’nizhoozhi Center – named for the Navajo word for “bridge” – typically averaged about 75 patients on a normal night, 95% of them Native American. He said that early in the public health crisis, NCI reduced the number of people it would admit each night and started taking everyone’s temperature when they entered the facility.
But, he said, on April 7 one of the patients was complaining of dizziness and was taken to the hospital. The center soon learned the patient had tested positive for COVID-19.
Foley said the Indian Health Service called NCI and asked for the names of people who had been at the facility in the past seven days. This kicked off weeks of officials trying to track down and test 170 people who had been exposed.
Foley said that one staff member tested positive from the initial outbreak and that others have contracted the virus from spouses, friends or other community members. He said that at one point, he had to close the facility for five days due to understaffing.
“A lot of my staff have walked off the job, they’re afraid to come to work,” Foley said. “Some got tested and were quarantined for 14 days.”
He said the man who initially tested positive first has recovered and he has seen him again since.
The NCI detox center is now taking only patients who have COVID-19 or have recovered from the illness, Foley said. All others who are picked up by the police for public intoxication are taken to the emergency rooms instead.
“Everybody agreed we didn’t want to mix people and potentially have another outbreak,” Foley said. “It’s better to know their status when they come in rather than not knowing their status.”
Beloved aunt gone
Tammy Arnold, and four of her family members, can trace their bouts of COVID-19 back to the NCI detox center. Her aunt died of the illness late last month.
In an interview with the Journal, 29-year-old Arnold said that in early April, her cousin spent the night at the center and then returned to his mother’s home near Yah-ta-hey, New Mexico, on the Navajo Nation.
A couple of days later, he started feeling sick and was taken to the Gallup Indian Medical Center. Then his mother, Arnold’s aunt, was also taken in.
Arnold remembers her aunt Edith James’ great long hugs and the way she would wrap her arms around relatives whenever they returned from a trip or came back to the reservation to visit her. James, who was in her 70s, loved to cook and made delicious frybread and tortillas.
But when she died on April 27, she was all alone. Her siblings – unable to go into her room to hug or touch her – said their goodbyes through the screen of an iPad in the waiting room of the hospital.
“That same day, the nurse was looking at my mom and told her she needed to get checked,” Arnold said. “The next day, my niece and I went to get checked at GIMC and to get tested, and a couple days after that we found out we had the virus.”
Arnold and her niece ended up going into quarantine at a local hotel themselves, spending their time watching television and scrolling through Facebook, reading about others who got the virus at NCI. She started to cry thinking about the way the outbreak has affected her family and how it had taken her aunt.
“Usually, when we have a family member that’s close to dying at the hospital, all of our family is always there,” Arnold said, choking up with sobs. “We’re always there in the room and always praying for them, and we get to say our goodbyes. This was really hurtful. She had to be alone.”
This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.