A year later: The COVID-19 pandemic on the Navajo Nation

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WINDOW ROCK, A.Z. – The Navajo Nation was once the hardest-hit area for cases in the entire country. A year later, the Nation has overcome many challenges.

At the start of the pandemic, the Navajo Nation was No. 1 in COVID-19 cases per capita – higher than New York City. Now, the Nation has over 70% of its people vaccinated, but signs of the pandemic remain.

"I think that there’s always a fear, there’s always going to be a fear,” said Carol Todacheenie, who recovered from COVID.

Todacheenie spent the last year and a half looking over her shoulder. The Kayenta, Arizona woman wondered if COVID would make an unwelcome return to do more harm to her body, mind and soul. The virus can be unforgiving.

"For awhile, it was really scary because we were having a funeral almost every other week,” said Todacheenie.

Todacheenie is one of more than 36,000 Navajo people who got COVID since the pandemic started. She lived, but nearly 1,500 tribal members died of COVID-related complications. She still gets daily reminders of her life or death battle.

"I still get tired, memory foggy sometimes,” Todacheenie said.

Her story highlighted the health inequities in Indian Country. Todacheenie said she was repeatedly turned away from testing and couldn’t get life-saving treatment on the reservation.

The Navajo Nation is roughly the size of West Virginia and spread out across three states. At the height of the pandemic, there were just 13 ICU beds for 173,0000 residents.

Todacheenie is starting to feel more like herself with each passing day, while still keeping her guard up.

"I’m doing a lot better, I’m back to work full time. I have a whole different outlook with everything,” she said.

Zoel Zohnnie hasn’t given up the fight to bring water to the people. Zohnnie launched Water Warriors, a nonprofit that hauls the precious resource to communities on the Navajo Nation. Many homes still don’t have running water. Zohnnie said things have slowed down in the last year.

"Unfortunately, that’s just been the nature of it all. There’s been a lot of groups that have stopped working. There’s been a lot of people that couldn’t afford to continue,” said Zohnnie.

Zohnnie uses a donated truck and water tank on his weekly deliveries.

"Sometimes I’ll just have a moment driving down the highway. Or I’ll step back and take a look at it, wow, you can’t help but appreciate it. You can’t help but be grateful for it,” said Zohnnie.

Many Navajo families hoped that federal dollars to fight COVID would bring infrastructure projects that brought water lines to homes.

"In a handful of instances, we were able to see some of our elders have bathroom additions put on, and they had cistern tanks, underground tanks put in for themselves,” Zohnnie said.

He said there’s a sentiment that the tribal government isn’t moving fast enough.

"We all want it to happen instantly. I hope that our tribe becomes more efficient.”

The tribe got $714 million from the Cares Act, some of the money was set aside for these quality-of-life projects. Navajo President Jonathan Nez blames federal red tape and a deadline to spend the money for leaving some projects on the table.

"Some of the regulations and the laws, and the policies need to be updated so that projects, infrastructure projects can be done quicker in Indian Country,” said Nez.

It’s been a year since KOB 4 first aired The People vs. The Pandemic, which has won four Emmys. Click here to watch.