In May, the Navajo Nation had the worst COVID-19 infection rate in the country, surpassing even New York City.
Now, the reservation is reporting fewer than 20 new cases each day.
That progress drew praise on Monday from Dr. Anthony Fauci, who said the Navajo Nation can serve as a model for the rest of the country in addressing the pandemic.
“You have proven that when you do these public health measures you can turn around a serious surge of infection,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. His remarks came during a Navajo Nation video update.
The reservation first mandated masks in April, along with a stay-at-home order and weekend curfews.
Navajo community health representatives have helped test and isolate virus patients. Local governments and nonprofits have provided food and supplies so residents don’t travel to border towns.
The reservation reported zero cases Sept. 8. Daily case numbers have risen since then. But numbers recently have been much smaller than in May, which had several days of more than 150 new cases.
Fauci also echoed concerns about Navajo children returning to school.
Bureau of Indian Education schools on the Navajo Nation will implement remote learning until November. But many Navajo children attend public schools off the reservation.
The Navajo Nation covers parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. New Mexico is the only one of those states to mandate masks. Utah is experiencing a record spike in cases, largely attributed to students returning to campuses.
“If you have children going out into an area that isn’t as stringently trying to control infection as you are doing within the confines of the Navajo Nation, then there’s the danger of bringing infection back despite your attempts,” Fauci said.
The Navajo Nation Human Research Review Board has approved participation in the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial.
Healthy adults who have not had a COVID-19 infection may volunteer for the study. Participants will receive two doses of either the study vaccine or a placebo.
Including Navajo residents will help scientists “understand if the vaccines that are licensed for all Americans will work to protect the first Americans,” said Dr. Laura Hammitt, director of Infectious Disease Programs for the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health.
“Almost all of the (other) study sites are in large urban areas that have not done effective outreach to Native Americans,” Hammitt said. “Several companies have opted not to include sites in Indian Country because of the time it takes for cultural adaptation of materials and the tribal approval process.”
Johns Hopkins has worked with the Navajo Nation and the Indian Health Service on previous vaccine clinical trials.