Biden authorizes disaster declaration for Navajo Nation over COVID-19

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — President Joe Biden has issued a major disaster declaration for the Navajo Nation over the coronavirus pandemic, a move that opens federal resources to sustain the tribe's ongoing response effort.

The declaration will support the tribe's response and recovery work through funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for medical staffing, vaccine support, supplies, equipment and personnel. 

"I have authorized federal relief and recovery assistance in the affected area," Biden wrote in the letter to tribal President Jonathan Nez.

Biden made the approval on Feb. 2 and Navajo leaders were notified that day by FEMA acting administrator Robert J. Fenton.

Food and supplies donated to the Navajo Nation to aid the coronavirus response effort were distributed on June 12, 2020 at the Northern Navajo Nation Fairgrounds in Shiprock.

"Today's major disaster declaration for the Navajo Nation affirms federal support to Navajo leaders and tribal members and the nation-nation partnership we value with the Navajo Nation," Fenton said on Feb. 2.

Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer submitted the request for federal assistance in December to then President Donald Trump.

The leaders stated that the COVID-19 situation had grown beyond the tribal government's resources and supplementary federal assistance was necessary to save lives and to protect public health.

Nez acknowledged Biden's action in remarks during an online town hall on Feb. 4.

New Mexico Air National Guard members unload boxes of produce to distribute to community members on June 12, 2020 at the Northern Navajo Nation Fairgrounds in Shiprock.

"What this does is it helps bring in resources to the Navajo Nation. It brings in manpower so that we can get more people vaccinated," Nez said.

After cases of the virus were first reported in March 2020, the tribe has been providing aid to tribal members. In recent weeks, the focus has shifted to the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.

Vaccine distribution has been ramping up on the reservation through health care facilities operated by Indian Health Service and tribal organizations.

Nez explained the declaration will help the distribution by bringing resources like mobile units that can deliver vaccines to remote communities on the reservation.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez holds the letter from President Joe Biden that authorized a major disaster declaration for the tribe due to the coronavirus pandemic. Nez remarked on the declaration during an online town hall on Feb. 4.

A FEMA spokesperson said this is the first declaration due to the pandemic for a tribal nation located in the agency's Region 9.

Region 9 consists of 150 tribal nations as well as Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, three U.S. territories, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, according to the agency's website.

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

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