Updated: August 17, 2020 10:26 PM
Created: August 17, 2020 04:49 PM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.- Inside a hotel room on the edge of the Navajo Nation, Herman Francis struggled to find ways to pass the time. He’s one of hundreds of people who were recently housed in isolation centers in Gallup, New Mexico, after contracting COVID-19.
Francis, 57, spent his three-week isolation reading newspapers while cooped up in his room at the Howard Johnson Hotel, which was filled with various snacks, supplies and water dropped off by his family.
Francis lives on tribal land in Manuelito, New Mexico which sits near the Arizona border. He suspects he contracted the virus at a family funeral, despite wearing masks at the time.
“In the back of my head, I was thinking I won’t catch it. I won’t catch it. It’s far away from me – I’m always home… and here I am, that’s what scared me,” said Francis.
The 57 year old is feeling better than before – but like so many others on the Navajo Nation, he lives in a multi-generational home. His biggest fear: spreading the virus further.
“I wanted to stay home and quarantine myself over there but I was living with my 93-year-old mom, which was not fortunate for me to be near her,” said Francis.
The only visitors Francis was allowed to interact with were the doctors who made daily rounds on the patients.
Dr. Samuel Hatfield is one of the physicians who provides medical care for isolated patients. Each day he suits up in personal protective equipment and carries a bleach-stained bag filled with medical supplies as he checks in on patients and monitors their vitals.
“The initial purpose was to try and provide a safe space for folks to isolate who tested positive,” said Dr. Hatfield, who is part of the HEAL initiative run in partnership with the University of California – San Francisco and the Indian Health Service.
“Really what you have is a community that is set up to have – unfortunately – worse outcomes because of chronic underfunding of the healthcare systems here, higher rates of diabetes, hypertension and obesity,” said Dr. Hatfield, adding later: “It’s a community that’s medically been neglected for a very long time.”
On the Navajo Nation, the battle against COVID-19 is ongoing. While new cases have decreased in recent weeks, the death rate per capita is higher than any state in the country.
While the Navajo Nation has managed to successfully flatten its curve, Dr. Hatfield said the demand for hotel-motel isolation centers has remained steady, with roughly 100 patients housed on any given day.
A SYSTEM OVERWHELMED
Twenty miles west of the Gallup isolation centers, Dr. Jill Jim leads the daily fight against the virus via a conference room in Window Rock, Arizona. She’s the executive director of the Navajo Nation Health Department.
“We really needed to isolate people and we really didn’t have those resources at the beginning until after we saw the numbers go down… so we have those extra tools,” said Dr. Jim, adding: “I think we’ve had over a thousand individuals who have come through the isolation rooms."
Since the beginning of the pandemic, roughly 1 in 20 people living on Navajo land have contracted the virus, according to data provided by the Navajo health department.
Health officials credit strict curfews and mask mandates for helping to slow the spread of COVID-19.
However, the Navajo Nation still faces a historical shortage of both hospital beds and doctors.
“I don’t think our healthcare system is still capable of managing the response without some of our volunteers,” said Dr. Jim.
As health officials work with Navajo tribal leaders to continue battling the outbreak, the temporary isolation centers will continue to operate for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile -- isolated patients like Herman Francis are eager to recover and get back to a more normal life.
“Let’s all come together and beat this virus,” said Francis. “Yes, we can’t see it… but it’s out there.”
Nathan O'Neal is a National Health Journalism Fellow. This story was made possible via partnership with the University of Southern California - Annenberg's Center for Health Journalism.
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