Fauci: Navajo Nation's reversal in new coronavirus infections could be example for the US

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — When it comes to following health experts' recommendations for reducing the spread of the coronavirus, the Navajo Nation could serve as a model, the country's leading infectious diseases expert told the public during a Sept. 21 online town hall meeting.

Dr. Anthony Fauci joined Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Vice President Myron Lizer and others in the virtual discussion that centered on the tribe's continuing response to the new virus.

"The reason you should be proud of what you've accomplished is that you've proven that when you do these public health measures, you can turn around a serious surge of infection," he said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci participates in a discussion about the coronavirus with leaders and health officials from the Navajo Nation on Sept. 21.

He said he believes that if the rest of the country looked at the model the Navajo Nation has shown, it can reverse the situation.

Fauci has since 1984 been the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and he is a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

The Navajo Nation reported its first case of the new coronavirus in March and, in May, the tribe had the most infections per capita in the United States.

While the daily number in new cases remains low this month, including a report of no new cases on Sept. 8, the tribe continues following public health recommendations for the coronavirus.

MORE:Navajo Nation had no new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday

Fauci commended the tribe for adhering those measures, which contribute to a near flatline of new infections.

Fauci urges flu shots

With flu season arriving and more people spending time indoors in the fall and winters, it is important for people to get a flu vaccine, Fauci said.

"We should try the best that we can to get as many people vaccinated with the flu shot as we possibly can," he said, adding that the general recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is that people six months of age and older get the flu vaccine.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez asks Dr. Anthony Fauci a question about reopening schools during an online town hall meeting on Sept. 21.

Such action would prevent influence of potentially two respiratory borne illnesses, he said.

"Because we know that the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is not going to disappear and as we go indoors it likely will challenge us for a surge," he said.

Tribe participates in vaccine trials

The discussion also touched on the tribe's participation in the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine trials.

The Navajo Nation Human Research Review Board approved the vaccine study in late August and the trials will be conducted at various health care centers across the reservation on a volunteer basis.

Several viewers voiced concern and opposition to the study in comments posted during the livestream.

Comments stated that the Navajo people are not "guinea pigs," that the risk is unknown and that previous medical studies were specifically designed to target people of color.

A New Mexico Department of Transportation electronic sign near Gallup reminds motorists of the nightly curfew for the Navajo Nation.

"I know that this is a touchy subject and we are cognizant of that," Nez said.

The New York Times reports that "researchers are testing 40 vaccines in clinical trials on humans and at least 92 preclinical vaccines are under active investigation in animals."

Dr. Laura Hammitt with Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, who is a member of the team leading the trials, gave an overview about the study on the Navajo Nation.

"The amount of death and disease that we've seen from COVID-19 and the real need to prevent disease and help get people back to their normal lives, this vaccine development process is moving more quicker than ever before," she said.

She said while there are many clinical trials taking place across the U.S., Native Americans have "effectively been denied" the opportunity to participate because there has not been effective outreach by researchers to such populations.

A homemade sign reminds motorists on Navajo Route 36 on April 25 to follow the stay at home order by the Navajo Department of Health to combat the coronavirus.

Some companies opt-out because the translation of materials into Native languages can be time consuming, this includes working with a tribal government's approval process for such studies, Hammitt said.

The Pfizer-BioNTech clinical trial has enrolled more than 25,000 people in the U.S. and over 30,000 globally, she said adding a data safety monitoring board oversees participant safety and efficacy of the product, which is standard procedure in research.

In response to a question by Lizer about vaccine availability, Fauci explained that availability depends on when a vaccine is "shown to be safe and effective."

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.

Support local journalism with a digital subscription to The Daily Times.