The Navajo Nation is slowly re-opening as more people get vaccinated.
In an interview with FOX 13, President Jonathan Nez said they were making good progress. But he also expressed some concern about Utah moving to terminate its COVID-19 public health orders.
"I think the Navajo people here on the Navajo Nation have done an outstanding job. We’re confident," President Nez said Thursday. "Slowly, we’re starting to re-open the Navajo Nation."
The Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, was a major hotspot in the United States for COVID-19 cases last year. President Nez and Navajo health officials imposed a series of strict lockdowns, curfews and restrictions to get a handle on cases.
The president said he believed it has worked. In recent weeks, the Navajo Nation has gone days without any new COVID-19 cases or deaths. In even more good news, of the roughly 260,000 Navajo who live in and around the Nation's boundaries, about 50% have been vaccinated. Of those who live on the Navajo Nation itself? It's around 70%, President Nez said.
"If we can get to 75% of our residents here on the Navajo Nation to get fully vaccinated, then we can start opening up our nation to our visitors and our guests and that would be a truly, a big goal," he said, noting that would be herd immunity for the area.
Businesses, churches and other things are starting to increase occupancy. A nightly curfew remains in effect. The Navajo Nation has moved to a "yellow" on its color-coded restriction scale. (The Nation has even started to send some masks and other personal protective equipment to other places like India, which is now facing a massive surge in COVID-19 cases.)
But until that herd immunity goal is reached, popular tourism destinations like Monument Valley will remain closed to visitors.
"Right now, we’re in a soft re-opening. We’re focusing on our Navajo citizens," the president said. "So I appreciate our visitors being patient with us. Also, they recognize how hard-hit Navajo has been."
President Nez on Thursday met with Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson at Navajo Mountain, where they discussed a number of topics including water and infrastructure access. She said they did discuss COVID-19 and vaccination efforts.
"Utah Navajo Health System has done a phenomenal job of vaccinating people in San Juan County. In fact, the Navajo Nation has made remarkable progress getting their adult population vaccinated," she said in a text message. "It’s not my place to discuss their specific numbers, but they’re impressive, and getting close to where President Nez has indicated he wants them to be before beginning to open up the reservation once again. They are taking safety precautions very seriously in order to protect people."
Asked by FOX 13 about the potential impact of Utah terminating all its public health orders under the law nicknamed the "COVID-19 endgame," President Nez said he did have some concern.
"We are concerned with that. With the state of Utah, we are interconnected," he said. "But I think you'll see many of our Navajo citizens at the border towns, they’re wearing masks."
President Nez said the Navajo Nation has adopted more strict health guidelines, even as the rest of the United States has opened up recently. He said wearing a mask is not a political statement, "it’s just showing you care about yourself and your community."
The latest metrics by Utah's Department of Health show the state is closer to terminating public health orders on gathering sizes, physical distancing and other measures. As of Friday, Utah's case rate was 161 per 100,000 (the law set a 191 per 100,000 rate); COVID-19 intensive care utilization was 12.1% (with a target of less than 15%); and vaccine prime doses were 1.52 million (with a target of 1.63 million).
Under the law, a mask mandate will remain in place for K-12 schools.
"With jurisdictions lessening their restrictions, of course it’s up to them," President Nez told FOX 13. "But for us on Navajo [Nation], we’re going to stay with very stringent protocols and that’s what helped us thus far with bringing numbers down and getting people vaccinated."