Coronavirus infections surge in Navajo Nation, surrounding areas
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Coronavirus infections surge in Navajo Nation, surrounding areas

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — U.S. health officials say coronavirus infections are beginning a renewed surge across the Navajo Nation and bordering areas that may peak in mid-May — a sign that the worst has yet to come in one of the nation's hardest-hit rural areas.

In a press briefing Thursday, officials with Indian Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention described efforts to containing the virus on remote stretches of the Navajo Nation. A widespread lack of indoor plumbing and crowded housing conditions are interfering with efforts at social distancing and isolation, despite local curfews and humanitarian aid deliveries, they said.

A COVID-19 outbreak at a detox facility was highlighted as a major factor behind surging infections in the city of Gallup and surrounding McKinley County that overlaps indigenous Zuni Pueblo and portions of the Navajo Nation.

“We anticipate that we have begun our surge,” said Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer for the Indian Health Service in the Navajo area. “We expect a full peak by around May 10 and we are very hopeful that we have prepared for our resources to manage that because that will get us to about our capacity at all of our hospitals."

That surge comes as President Donald Trump on Thursday said the federal government will not be extending its coronavirus social distancing guidelines and tried to dispel economic gloom, saying he was anticipating a major financial rebound in the coming months. He plans to visit Arizona next week.

In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham extended an emergency health order through May 15 while relaxing restrictions on nonessential businesses to offer curbside service and deliveries and allowing gun shops, veterinary offices and state parks to reopen.

"It’s a safe relaxation, begins to ease those pressures” on the economy, she said.

At the Navajo Nation, infections initially surged on the western side of the vast reservation — which overlaps parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah — and now extend the southern and eastern reaches of Navajo Nation.

“There are multiple factors that have have resulted in the high numbers,” Christensen said. “The social distancing is challenging in our area. You know, we’re encouraging hand-washing and good hygiene, and we have 30% of homes that unfortunately don’t have running water. We’re asking social distancing. And we have multi-generation families all living in the same house.”

Henry Walke, a division director for emergency infections at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the CDC has deployed two field teams to the Navajo Nation at the request of tribal authorities. Federal authorities have opened to two alternative care centers in the region that can expand bed capacity at hospitals by caring for recovering COVID-19 patients with oxygen treatment and other therapies.

There were 1,977 confirmed COVID-19 infections and 62 deaths on the Navajo Nation as of Wednesday, according to federal and tribal officials.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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