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Navajo relief group prepares for a second wave of COVID-19 cases

Volunteers with the Navajo and Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief and AirServ International unload supplies in Bluff, Utah. (Courtesy of Cassandra Begay)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

When COVID-19 first appeared on the Navajo Nation in March, a dozen Indigenous women began bringing food and supplies to those most affected.

Nearly six months later, the Navajo and Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund has grown to more than 160 volunteers.

The group has raised $5.8 million, and has distributed supplies to more than 23,000 families.

“We provide enough food, PPE and supplies for two weeks, so people don’t have to expose themselves in border towns,” said deputy director Cassandra Begay. “We focus on elders, immunocompromised people, single-parent homes and families that have been impacted by this economy.”

Separate isolation kits for COVID-19 patients include tents, cots and hand-washing stations. The kits allow virus patients to quarantine at their own homesites.

A $50,000 donation from a group of Arizona nurses helped purchase the kits. The nurses made headlines in April as “counterprotesters” for donning their scrubs and masks during a Phoenix protest against business restrictions.

More than $930,000 has come from Irish donors, who view the donations as repayment for the Choctaw Nation’s financial help during the potato famine.

“What’s been amazing in this journey is seeing how we are all recognizing the humanity in each other,” Begay said. “If we do that, we can come back better and stronger.”

The Navajo Nation has reported 20 or fewer cases each day for two weeks.

But winter and flu season are fast approaching, and the threat of another spike in COVID-19 infections looms.

“Nothing’s really changed in our communities since the start of the pandemic,” Begay said. “What was exacerbating this crisis to begin with, mainly the lack of infrastructure and PPE, those variables are the same.”

The group is making the transition to an official nonprofit, Yée Ha’óolníidóo, which translates to “May the Navajo people have fortitude.” Plans include hiring staff for permanent distribution sites.

Boosting those efforts is a $200,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to address food insecurity on tribal lands.

The group also worked with AirServ International this summer, delivering 48,000 pounds of supplies on 24 flights to the most remote communities.

The Navajo Nation reported nine new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday and no deaths. More than 7,100 people have recovered, and 503 people have died from the disease.

Dr. Jill Jim, director of the Navajo Nation Department of Health, said residents should be cautious.

The reservation will have partial weekend lockdowns throughout September, starting at 9 p.m. on Saturdays. All businesses are closed during the lockdowns. Nightly curfews remain in effect.

“The pandemic is still here,” Jim said during a video update Tuesday. “COVID-19 has not gone away. There’s no treatment, there’s no cure for it, so continue to do prevention every day.”

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