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Coronavirus Cases Spike In Navajo Nation, Where Water Service Is Often Scarce

The Navajo Nation reported its first two coronavirus cases on March 17. Just over a week later, there are now 69 cases. The reservation is under stay-at-home orders — but thousands of people must regularly leave their houses for necessities such as water.

"About 40% of Navajos must drive several miles to haul their water and many still use outhouses," member station KJZZ's Laurel Morales reports from Flagstaff for NPR's Newscast unit.

Morales spoke to Shanna Yazzie, who must drive 50 miles to bring drinking water, groceries, and other items back home — and to handle basic tasks, such as dropping off household garbage.

With the new emphasis on handwashing, Yazzie's family is going through more water.

"My mother was asking, 'When are we taking the trash out?'" Yazzie told Morales. "We have four bags of trash and we have to drive into Tuba City. To do that and to do laundry, I'm scared to go do laundry right now. We have a small laundromat here in the community kind of risky for us right now, so our laundry is getting piled up."

Navajo Nation officials declared a public health emergency earlier this month, as the number of cases rapidly rose. They then escalated to a shelter-in-place order on March 20, saying all residents must stay at home except for those involved in essential businesses.

"If we don't comply with the advice of health care and pandemic experts to stay home, we will continue to see greater and greater increases in confirmed cases," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said via Twitter.

Navajo Nation includes nearly 174,000 people living on tribal lands that extend into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, according to the most recent Census. It spans some 27,425 square miles, making it the largest geographic land base American Indian reservation in the U.S. And there are concerns that its residents could be especially vulnerable to a viral respiratory disease.

"In 2009, American Indians and Alaska Natives died from H1N1 at four times the rates of all other racial and ethnic groups combined," Morales reports. "That's according to a study by the National Institutes of Health."

The new $2 trillion coronavirus spending bill includes some $8 billion to help tribal governments fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.

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