NAVAJO NATION (CBS Newspath) – The White House says it will spend more than $4 billion to fight COVID-19 in Native American communities, including $600 million for vaccinations. Friday morning, First Lady Jill Biden is visiting the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation that had one of the country’s highest per-capita death rates last year.
More than 1,200 of its people have died of COVID. Now, the territory is leading the nation in vaccination rates and could be the first in the U.S. to achieve herd immunity.
The journey to reach herd immunity on the Navajo Nation hasn’t always been a smooth one. “We are going to a small community south of Shiprock, New Mexico. We’re going to get smiles when we get there,” said nurse Lyle Lee.
Lee drove nearly an hour to give 72-year-old Johan Johnson the first dose. Johnson was willing to take the vaccine but refused to leave his rural home.
“It’s very important, for us to you know, do these types of visits you know and just respecting their choice,” said Lee.
McKinley County, New Mexico borders the Navajo Nation and is made up of more than 70% Native Americans. In September of 2020, this county ranked first in the state and sixth nationally for COVID deaths per capita.
“At first, we didn’t really have our guard up, but once it hit within our family, that’s when reality hit,” said Jamie Barboan. Reality struck quickly for Jamie Barboan’s family. Her mother Yvonne Tolth got COVID-19 first.
“One of my sons, he passed he spent like a month and a half in the hospital and he fought it but didn’t come home,” said Tolth. “I would get mad and just cried a lot, and my daughter just stood by me and my other kids.”
The high death toll led tribe officials to spread the word about the importance of vaccines. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez was one of the first to get his shot, posting pictures on social media.
He also hosts weekly town halls to help educate the nearly 300,000 members.
“Any outside entity, I think, of all people of color, there’s some distrust with the federal government. And so I think when we started the discussions about getting the vaccines, you know, we were out there daily, almost just getting the information to our Navajo citizens,” said President Nez.
It wasn’t just providing that information, the moment they got access to vaccines, leaders split their efforts between mass vaccination sites and meeting people out in their own communities.
“We’ve had a rough time in COVID, but we fought very hard and we have succeeded to fight back COVID,” said the tribe’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Loretta Christensen. Christensen says their efforts have led to more than 70% of the Navajo Nation receiving their first dose.
“I think that we are either at herd immunity, or very very close,” said Christensen. “I am smiling yes, I am very proud of what we’ve done.”
Most of Jamie Barboan’s family has been vaccinated with the hope of preventing future heartache. “What my mom has went through and what I’ve seen. I don’t want to go through that. It’s all about safety and family. That’s why I feel one hundred percent confident and happy and safe that the vaccine is here,” said Barboan.
Even as the Navajo Nation reaches herd immunity they are not letting their guard down as states around them continue to open up. They are very worried about another potential surge so they have put strict health guidelines in place that include a mask mandate and also an overnight curfew.