Navajo Nation Begins Mass Vaccinations After Lifting Lockdown Order

Jan 29, 2021
Originally published on January 29, 2021 10:06 pm

The Navajo Nation has lifted a strict weekend curfew that has been in place for months to expand COVID-19 vaccination efforts.

Like much of the country, the Navajo Nation had its worst coronavirus surge at the end of last year. But now, more than 1 in 5 residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine — a much higher level than most states so far.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez told NPR's All Things Considered that now is not the time to let up on taking individual precautions but that the inoculation campaign is moving swiftly.

"We're going to be focusing on mass vaccinations and these vaccination blitz [events] on Saturday and Sunday," Nez said.

The Navajo Nation has been especially hit hard by the coronavirus. In May, it had the highest per capita infection rate in the United States.

Nez said that so far, one of the main barriers health officials are trying to overcome is vaccine hesitancy, especially among older people. So in an effort to boost confidence in the vaccine, Nez said he rolled up his sleeve and got vaccinated. "We televised it," he said. "I think we brought some of the people who were on the fence to take the vaccine."


Interview Highlights

What kind of other unique challenges have you faced in getting the vaccine distributed across the reservation?

Here on the Navajo Nation, those challenges are to get the shots into the arms of those that are living in the rural parts of the Navajo Nation that may not have vehicles or choosing to stay there, away from the high-populated areas, so that's been a challenge.

And now with the weather — we got mud and snow, and it's starting to be a challenge to get some of those folks their second dose, because there's a window right, depending on which vaccine you're using. And so we're talking with them and those patients, and we're even trying to encourage them to come to some of these sites to get their second doses as well.

The vaccine will go a long way, but I'm sure your health officials will say it's not the only thing that will resolve the pandemic. What else needs to happen for life to feel normal again on your reservation?

We just need the states around us, the non-Native communities to do the same, take this virus seriously. For example, the state of Arizona — they don't mandate masks; they don't have businesses doing strict protocols. And we're like an island, the Navajo Nation within these three states [Arizona, Utah and New Mexico]. If other areas around us are not taking it seriously, it does impact the Navajo Nation.

I appreciate the state of New Mexico, the governor there. They have a mask mandate; they're doing everything they can, and we're working together on the outreach — getting the information out to our people about COVID, about testing, about vaccinations.

But like I said, our focus here is on the health and well-being of our Navajo people.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This week, the Navajo Nation lifted a strict weekend curfew that has been in place for months in order to expand COVID-19 vaccination efforts. Like much of the country, the Navajo Nation had its worst coronavirus surge at the end of last year. But now, over 1 in 5 residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine, a much higher number than most states so far. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez told us that now is not the time to let up on taking individual precautions, but that the inoculation campaign was moving swiftly.

JONATHAN NEZ: Our goal, as well as this country, is to get as many people vaccinated. And to do that, we need more days. So we took the restrictions off the weekends. And we're going to be focusing on mass vaccinations and these vaccination blitz on Saturday and Sunday. So I just got a report that there's going to be several of them this weekend. But snow is coming in again, and so that might also slow those efforts down.

CHANG: Well, I'm curious to ask you about the enthusiasm level of people getting vaccinated. I know that you have vaccinated health care workers. You've begun vaccinating people over the age of 65. Have you found that people in general are pretty willing to get vaccinated or does it seem to be getting harder to convince people to get vaccinated as you expand further into the population?

NEZ: Of course, the health care workers, you know, they know science. And so they were a lot more interested in getting the vaccine. But as we started to turn the page into vaccinating our elderly, 65 and over, a lot of our elderly were like, well, I don't know. They were on the fence there. But what we did here was we had - you know, people are asking, are you going to get it, President? You are the leader of the Nation. And then that would show to the rest of the native peoples, including the Navajo Nation, that we have confidence in this vaccine. And so I rolled up my sleeve New Year's Eve, and I took the Pfizer shot. We televised it. I think we brought some of those people that were on the fence to take the vaccine. And we've been doing public health emergency town halls, a lot of questions were answered.

CHANG: Well, what kind of other unique challenges have you faced in getting the vaccine distributed across the reservation? You mentioned weather being one of them and some amount of vaccine hesitancy in some parts of the community. What else?

NEZ: Here on the Navajo Nation, those challenges are to get the shots into the arms of those that are living in the rural parts of the Navajo Nation that may not have a vehicle or choosing to stay there away from the high-populated areas. So that's been a challenge. And now with the weather, you know, we got mud and snow. It's starting to be a challenge to get some of those folks their second dose because there's a window - right? - depending on which vaccine you're using. And so we're talking with them and those patients, and we're even trying to encourage them to come to some of these sites to get their second doses as well.

CHANG: Well, obviously, the vaccine will go a long way. But I want to ask you what else most needs to happen now for life to even begin to feel normal again on your reservation you think?

NEZ: Well, we just need the states around us, the non-native communities, to do the same, take this virus seriously, you know? For example, the state of Arizona, they don't mandate masks. They don't have businesses doing strict protocols. And we're like an island, the Navajo Nation, within these three states. If other areas around us are not taking it seriously, it does impact the Navajo Nation.

I appreciate the state of New Mexico. The governor there, they have a mask mandate. They're doing everything they can. And we were working together on the outreach, getting the information out to our people about COVID, about testing, about vaccinations. Like I said, our focus here is on the health and well-being of our Navajo people.

CHANG: Jonathan Nez is president of the Navajo Nation.

Thank you very much for your time today.

NEZ: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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