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Virus may have peaked for Navajo hospitals

The latest Navajo Area Indian Health Service surge plan shows that coronavirus-related hospitalizations peaked from April 21 to 26 and have steadily declined since then. Officials previously predicted the virus would not peak on the Navajo Nation until mid-May at the earliest. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Navajo Nation health care facilities may have reached their peak of COVID-19 hospitalizations in late April, several weeks ahead of earlier projections, according to an updated surge plan from the Indian Health Service.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez speaks about COVID-19 on the reservation during a town hall update Tuesday. (Source: Facebook)

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez credited cooperation with lockdowns and public health orders as factors in the decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

“The Navajo public listening to those warnings flattened the curve early, and as you can see the curve is flattening now,” Nez said during a town hall update Tuesday. “… If you were wearing a mask, you’re a warrior.”

The Navajo Area Indian Health Service’s May 23 surge plan for the COVID-19 pandemic shows that coronavirus-related hospital admissions, ICU admissions and patients placed on ventilators were all at the highest point from April 21 to April 26, and have steadily decreased since then. Officials had previously projected that Navajo Area IHS health care facilities would not see a peak in virus cases until at least mid-May.

Hospitals in Gallup, Shiprock and Crownpoint continue to cope with increased patient volumes by transporting the most critical COVID-19 patients to Albuquerque.

Roselyn Tso, director of the Navajo Area Indian Health Service, told Navajo residents to “stay the course” with public health orders. She said IHS would continue to expand testing and contact tracing.

“When you do testing you need to have the tracers right behind the positive cases, so we can better assess where people have been to get in front of those other individuals that may have been exposed,” Tso said.

While coronavirus-related hospitalizations appear to have decreased on the reservation, the number of new cases reported each day has yet to see a steady decline. If the Navajo Nation were a state, it would have the highest per capita infection rate in America, according to data from state, tribal and federal agencies.

Nez said continued high case numbers are to be expected, as the reservation has tested nearly 15% of its population.

As of Tuesday, the Navajo Nation had reported more than 4,800 COVID-19 cases, with 158 deaths and more than 1,580 reported recoveries.

Indian Health Services director Rear Adm. Michael Weahkee said the Navajo Area IHS has received a total of about $234 million in federal COVID-19 response funds.

Weahkee is visiting the reservation this week to tour health care facilities and meet with tribal and state leaders.

“The next phase is recovery … we want to do that in a data-informed manner,” Weahkee said, adding that decisions about reopening would be based on capacity of local health care facilities and a decrease in new positive cases.

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