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Facing rising COVID-19 case numbers, the Navajo Nation issues new tribal public health orders

Since the start of the year, the Navajo Nation has reported more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases, with as many as 405 cases on Jan. 13. In response, the tribe is updating public health orders aimed at curbing the spread of the illness.

It also means that schools in Navajo country are once again at "red status," which limits school activities and allows schools to shift to remote learning.

"The omicron variant is spreading in our communities and it is highly contagious, so we all have to step up our efforts to keep ourselves and others safe," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a press release. "At this point, no one should be visiting people who do not live within your own immediate household, and please do not hold large in-person family gatherings such as birthday parties."

COVID-19 case numbers are reported daily by the Navajo Nation Department of Health and are collected from the eight different Indian Health Service units that serve the Navajo Nation.

The surge in cases comes after months of the tribe seeing 20 or fewer cases most days, but nowhere near their peak in 2020 when they reported over 1,000 cases nearly daily.

The Navajo Department of Health reported 19 confirmed omicron cases on the Navajo Nation as of Jan. 11 within the following Service Units: Chinle, Kayenta, Sage Memorial Hospital, Tuba City, and Utah Navajo Health System.

"If you go into public places, our health officials strongly recommend wearing two masks due to the high transmissibility of the omicron variant," Nez said in a written statement. "We have to remain diligent, keep taking precautions and continue to pray,"

In response to the continued increase of positive cases, the Navajo Nation Department of Health issued two updated public health orders and a health advisory notice.

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The two updated public health orders declared "red status" among schools across the Navajo Nation, reemphasized the "safer at home" order and addressed travel recommendations.

Public Health Emergency Order No. 2022-01 reaffirms the Navajo Nation's "safer at home" order and includes new travel guidelines.

The order asks Navajo people to delay traveling until they're fully vaccinated or receive their booster shot, avoid all unnecessary travel and stay home if sick or in quarantine unless seeking medical attention. It also asks people to consider setting up virtual or telephonic meetings and appointments before traveling.

Public Health Emergency Order No. 2022-02 declares "Red Status" and it follows guidelines set up by the Navajo Nation Department Health through the "Navajo Nation COVID-19 Safe Schools Framework."

The provisions ask schools to implement more aggressive physical distancing measures, hybrid or virtual learning shall be offered to the maximum extent possible and limit gathering to 15 or fewer persons for non-classroom instruction events.

The guidelines also ask to limit sport event attendance to 25% of maximum occupancy for indoor and outdoor seating areas; require students, staff, and visitors to stay home if they are sick; report exposures using the Navajo Nation Health Command Center; and notify the nearest local health facility.

"As the Omicron variant continues to spread, we strongly urge our people to practice the safety measures put forth by our health experts," Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer said in a written statement. "We are in this together, and we must remain strong for another."

"If you have elders in your family, please take the time to inform them and keep them updated about the spread of the Omicron variant and guidance from our health professionals," Lizer said. "Our elders and those with underlying health conditions need our support throughout this pandemic."

The public health advisory provides a guideline for people on the Navajo Nation who need to isolate or quarantine related to COVID-19.

The Navajo Nation Department of Health and the Navajo Health Command Operations Center said its guidance "did not entirely adopt" the CDC's recently updated recommendations for isolation and quarantine.

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The advisory recommends that people who test positive for COVID-19 should stay at home for 10 days since symptoms began; isolation can be shortened to five days only if a COVID-19 test on the fifth day is negative and there are no symptoms. It also advises wearing a mask for the full 10 days, both in and outside the home.

Quarantine is not required for exposed individuals who are fully vaccinated, boosted and have no symptoms.

As of January, Navajo Nation officials have reported that 72% of the Navajo Nation's eligible population is fully vaccinated, and among elders who are 65 years and older, 87% are fully vaccinated.

Even with these public health orders being issued, the Navajo Nation never fully let up its COVID-19 restrictions, even when numbers were low. There is still a public health mandate that requires people to wear masks in public while on the Navajo Nation. They still have COVID-19 measures put in place for businesses, including limited capacity.

Nez issued an executive order mandating all executive branch government employees, regular, part-time, and temporary, to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination booster shot by Jan. 24. The judicial and legislative branches of the Navajo Nation government also have their own mandates set in place.

If an employee is not fully vaccinated and does not get a booster shot, the employee is required to submit a negative COVID-19 test result at least once every 14 days. This updated executive order comes months after Nez signed another executive order requiring all employees to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 by Sept. 29, 2021, or be subject to mandatory COVID-19 testing.

This is contrary to how recently the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to the Biden administration by blocking a federal mandate that workers be vaccinated or regularly tested for COVID-19.

"We must all take extra precautions and encourage our loved ones to get fully vaccinated and a booster shot if eligible," Nez said, and vaccine and booster shots are being administered at health care facilities across the Navajo Nation.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.


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