'Effective response' beyond capabilities as Navajo leaders seek major disaster declaration

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

GALLUP — The Navajo Nation is seeking a major disaster declaration from President Donald Trump due to the coronavirus pandemic being "of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities" of the tribe.

That is what tribal President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer wrote in the Dec. 3 request to Trump that outlined the reasons the tribe is pursuing the declaration under federal law. 

The two leaders state that the current situation is beyond the control of the tribe's resources and that supplementary federal assistance is "necessary to save lives, to protect property, public health and safety, and to lessen or avert the threat of a larger disaster."

Read more:Nez defends stance for funding Navajo Nation's COVID-19 financial relief program

In addition to the declaration, they are "specifically" requesting crisis counseling assistance, disaster case management, and public assistance under the emergency protective measures category – each one is a type of assistance under the Stafford Act.

They also seek direct federal assistance for chapter governments and the overall tribal government, additional federal services and aid allowed under a declaration, and to waive the non-federal cost-sharing requirement.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez fist-bumps a community member during the distribution event by his office on June 12 at the Northern Navajo Nation Fairgrounds in Shiprock in this file photo.

In March, Nez and Lizer concurred with the tribe's Commission on Emergency Management to declare a public health state of emergency in response to COVID-19.

In the months that followed, the tribe has seen multiple public health emergency orders, various guidelines for mitigating spread of the coronavirus, restrictions on travel, activities and events, and the closure of tribal government offices, schools and businesses.

This week, the Navajo Department of Health extended the stay-at-home order from Dec. 7 through Dec. 28 and reinstated the 57-hour weekend lockdowns for the remainder of the month.

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Nez and Lizer highlighted these efforts but wrote that the tribe is "experiencing a crisis in the number of COVID-19 cases presenting themselves daily at Navajo Nation health care facilities."

On Dec. 3, health officials from the Navajo Area Indian Health Service spoke during an online forum about the dire situation hospitals face as new COVID-19 cases surge on the reservation.

They talked about hospitals facing shortages in critical supplies and equipment, facilities reaching capacity for patients, fatigue among health care providers and staffing shortages, the Arizona Republic reported.

Navajo Area IHS Chief Medical Officer Loretta Christensen said facilities are competing with health care systems across the United States for medical resources, including supplies like oxygen and additional nursing staff.

"We are truly in crisis mode here on Navajo," Jonathan Iralu, infectious disease specialist at Gallup Indian Medical Center, said during the forum.

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The tribe's total for COVID-19 cases reached 17,310 as of Dec. 3 and there have been 663 deaths.

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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