Army medical team helping Northern Navajo Medical Center strained by COVID-19

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

SHIPROCK — An Army medical team is helping strained health care providers at the Northern Navajo Medical Center as the latest wave of COVID-19 infections starts to decline.

The 25-member team was deployed by the U.S. Army North, the military agency that has overseen these missions to local communities as part of the Department of Defense COVID-19 response operations.

At the request of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Indian Health Service, the team has been working together with civilian and U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps health care providers to treat patients.

U.S. Army Capt. Michael Salanga, the surgical medical planner of Joint Task Force 51, speaks to members of a medium medical team during their joint reception, staging, onward movement and integration brief on Jan. 26 at the Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock.

Col. Ann Sims-Columbia has been a nurse in the Army for almost 25 years and oversees the team, whose members range in years of clinical experience and expertise and arrived at the hospital on Jan. 26.

"I have heard nothing but positive from them," Sims-Columbia said about reaction from the team about hospital staff.

"The nursing staff that is here has been very welcoming, very accommodating, very willing to answer questions and to help them adapt within their specific skill level to getting them to the right area of care. Basically, letting us help out where we can be the most helpful," she said.

U.S. Army Maj. Brenda Fernandez, operations officer of a medium medical team deployed to Shiprock, takes notes during a joint reception, staging, onward movement, and integration brief on Jan. 26 at the Northern Navajo Medical Center.

That aid by the team includes treating patients in the medical-surgical and pediatrics units as well as the emergency department.

Sims-Columbia said this is the team's first deployment to a tribal community and they learned about the elements of Navajo culture when arriving at the hospital.

"They have been encouraged to ask questions of the staff and to feel as integrated as we can as we perform the mission," she said.

A medical team deployed to Shiprock receives a joint reception, staging, onward movement, and integration brief on Jan. 26 at the Northern Navajo Medical Center.

The military medical personnel are the latest to help the hospital, which has received aid from nongovernmental organizations, disaster medical assistance teams and other military teams from the Department of Defense since the pandemic started.

These medical providers help fill the gaps in staffing shortages – which is about a 45% vacancy rate for nurses – and help address the demand in services, said USPHS Commissioned Corps Cmdr. Lenora Tso, the hospital's chief nurse executive.

"Having the additional nursing support here does give us the opportunity to have more beds open in our pediatrics unit and our medical-surgical unit. Also, it does help with morale," Tso said.

The hospital's clinical director, Dr. Ouida Vincent, added that nationwide medical staff face burnout as the pandemic enters the third year and Northern Navajo is no exception.

The U.S. Army medical team deployed to the Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock is part of the continued U.S. Department of Defense COVID-19 response operations to help communities in need.

"These outside resources from the DOD are morale boosters. They signal to the staff that they have support," Vincent said.

The team will be at the hospital in Shiprock for 30 days and could be deployed longer if requested by the lead federal agency.

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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