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COVID-19 medical care site opens at Northwest High School in Shiprock

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

SHIPROCK — A location to house and provide medical services to individuals confirmed to have COVID-19, but with less severe symptoms, has opened inside a high school here.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Albuquerque District spent the last part of April transforming the gymnasium at Northwest High School into an on-site health care location.

The construction was requested by the Navajo Nation and Navajo Area Indian Health Service to reduce the burden on hospitals as the demand for patient care increases due to the rise in positive cases for COVID-19 on the Navajo Nation.

Work was completed on April 29, the same day Navajo government and IHS officials toured the school. While the gymnasium will house 40 beds for patient care, other sections of the building will be used by medical staff.

Shiprock Associated Schools Inc. Executive Director Rick Edwards, left, and SASI School Board President Pete Ken Atcitty, center, were among officials to tour the alternate care site on April 29 at Northwest High School in Shiprock.

The location in Shiprock is the latest alternate care site the Corps has built in the area. Similar sites were built at Miyamura High School in Gallup and at the Chinle Community Center in Chinle, Arizona.

"The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is dedicated to use our expertise and capabilities to assist President Nez and the entire Navajo Nation in developing alternate care facilities to reduce the impact of COVID-19," Lt. Col. Robin Scott, deputy commander for the Albuquerque district, said in a statement.

Navajo Area IHS Chief Medical Officer Loretta Christensen explained on April 30 that medical personnel from the IHS and other federal agencies, through medical teams deployed to the reservation, will work at the site in Shiprock.

"The criteria for that site is that you have been treated in an acute care center, you're found to be recovering, but you still need some medical attention. So, it is a lower acuity medical care. We do provide oxygen, medications and all those services to the patient in the alternative care site until they can be discharged to home or to temporary housing," Christensen said.

She added the agency began planning for the sites before the influx of positive cases.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Vice President Myron Lizer and Navajo Area IHS Director Roselyn Tso were among those who toured the location.

"Vice president and I were saying that we hoped, we prayed that we don't need this, but it'll be good to have this facility," Nez said.

For some attending the tour, it was difficult to see the gymnasium transformed into such a facility.

"This is the gym that we come to, to watch our kids play basketball. … I'm thinking about the children who should be playing and getting ready for summer," Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty said.

Northwest High School is part of Shiprock Associated Schools Inc. and is a Bureau of Indian Education funded grant school.

A letter written on April 26 to students and parents that was posted on the school's website states the administration learned through an April 19 social media post by the Navajo Nation Council that the school was approved for an alternate care site.

The letter also outlines the process to inform appropriate parties, including the school board, about the selection.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, second from left, talks with Amanda Velasquez, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Albuquerque District, during a tour of the alternate care site on April 29 at Northwest High School in Shiprock.

Rick Edwards, executive director for SASI, said in an interview after the tour that he did not authorize using the school, explaining that the decision was directed to personnel "above my pay grade."

He said he has received various comments from parents – ranging from concerns about student health and safety after the site is removed to recognizing the need for medical services.

Board Vice President Nikki Begay expressed disappointment for the lack of transparency to approve the school's use but hopes the board will receive a full explanation about the authorization.

"We don't ask for these things to happen. I have my personal feelings regarding this whole set-up, but it is what it is and now it's moving forward. Hopefully, in a positive direction," Begay said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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