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Navajo doctors: ‘We’re in crisis mode’

 Catherine Lee, a Navajo Community Health Representative, talks with a resident at his home on the Navajo Nation in May. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Doctors treating COVID-19 patients in Navajo Nation hospitals are urging residents to stay home as new cases explode across the reservation.

Nursing staff is stretched so thin at Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock that the facility’s dentists and physical therapists are taking on any duties that can be performed by non-nurses.

Dr. Ouida Vincent, the center’s clinical director, said the hospital is admitting five to six COVID patients each evening. “(Last) Friday, we had too few high-flow nasal canula machines for the number of patients needing them,” Vincent said during a video update Thursday. “We were able to make adjustments, but it was traumatic for our staff.”

After a spring COVID-19 surge with the most per capita cases in the nation, the reservation was able to reduce new virus cases to zero on Sept. 8. But new cases and deaths have since risen to unprecedented levels.

The Navajo Nation has reported record-high case numbers since mid-November, with several days of more than 300 new cases.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that nearly 173,000 people live on the reservation.

Vincent pleaded with residents to wear face coverings and wash hands, and to limit travel and family gatherings so as to prevent spreading the virus.

Early on in the pandemic, Navajo hospitals were scrambling for masks, gloves and hospital gowns. Now, oxygen supplies and medicine are hard to come by, said Dr. Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer for the Navajo Area Indian Health Service.

“Many of our vendors that provide oxygen for our hospitals are challenged with getting replenished supplies for their companies, and therefore we are challenged with trying to find new vendors to provide oxygen,” Christensen said.

Treating the second surge of COVID-19 patients is different from the spring wave, said Dr. Paula Mora of Gallup Indian Medical Center.

“The first wave, we had the opportunity to transport patients to bigger facilities in Albuquerque,” Mora said. “That is no longer available as our regional resources are being stretched to the limit.”

The doctors said they often call 15 or more hospitals off the reservation to find space for a patient, sometimes in facilities as far away as Denver or El Paso.

Case numbers are surging in all the states surrounding the reservation. Many metropolitan hospitals are operating above capacity, so they have no room for additional patients.

But if and when the Indian Health Service doctors are successful in finding an available bed, there are often no flight teams or ambulances available to transfer the patient.

“We are truly in a crisis mode here on Navajo,” said Dr. Jonathan Iralu, an infectious disease specialist with the Indian Health Service.

Both the Gallup and Shiprock hospitals are dealing with aging facilities, limited oxygen hookups and staff constraints.

The Navajo Nation has extended a stay-at-home order and 57-hour weekend curfews in response to the skyrocketing cases.

As of Friday evening, there have been 17,495 cases, 9,768 recoveries and 665 deaths on the reservation.

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