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Top Navajo leaders quarantine as tribe prepares for curfew

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson emerges from his office in Santa Fe, N.M., Thursday, March 9, 2020. Richardson is spearheading a charitable fund drive to help supply the Navajo Nation in New Mexico with personal protection and medical equipment to stem the spread of the coronavirus in cooperation with Molina Healthcare and the New Mexico Children's Foundation. Infections have surged on the Navajo Nation where there is limited access to everything from intensive care beds to surgical masks and household drinking water. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee) ORG XMIT: RPML101 (Morgan Lee / AP)
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson emerges from his office in Santa Fe, N.M., Thursday, March 9, 2020. Richardson is spearheading a charitable fund drive to help supply the Navajo Nation in New Mexico with personal protection and medical equipment to stem the spread of the coronavirus in cooperation with Molina Healthcare and the New Mexico Children's Foundation. Infections have surged on the Navajo Nation where there is limited access to everything from intensive care beds to surgical masks and household drinking water. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee) ORG XMIT: RPML101 (Morgan Lee / AP)
By Susan Montoya Bryan and Morgan Lee Associated Press

Two leaders of the largest Native American reservation in the U.S. are in self-quarantine as the Navajo Nation prepares for a weekend-long curfew aimed at curbing the coronavirus outbreak.

The virus has swept with ferocity through the Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The tribe has recorded more than 550 cases and 22 deaths among Navajos who live on the 27,000-square-mile reservation.

Navajo President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer announced Thursday during a town hall that they are quarantining themselves as a precaution after being in close proximity with a first responder who later tested positive. They say they donned masks and gloves while visiting communities and are following protocols to isolate.

The virus can infect anyone and should not be taken lightly, Nez said.

“Let’s not lose hope, but let’s face the reality that this virus is going to be around for several more months and we have to deal with it by making smart decisions and with prayer,” he said.

Their decision comes as the tribe prepares for the 57-hour reservation-wide curfew that will begin Friday at 8 p.m. Strict enforcement has been promised, with Navajo police able to issue citations that may include fines up to $1,000 or jail time.

“The more people continue to go out into public, the longer we will have to stay home,” Lizer said.

Access to health care and medical supplies already is a concern on the Navajo Nation and in other tribal communities in the southwestern U.S that have seen spikes in the number of cases over the past week.

A philanthropic effort announced by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is the latest aimed at getting more supplies to the Navajo Nation. The National Guard in Arizona and New Mexico also have helped with the response on the reservation.

The Navajo Nation Council, which serves as the tribe’s legislative body, was holding a special session Friday to consider legislation related to the outbreak. One measure would postpone elections for local tribal officials for a year, while another would address price gouging during a state of emergency.

Noting the high number of cases on the reservation, former Navajo president and chairman Peterson Zah said his community has resorted to curfews appropriately to avoid panic but the reaction to the first faraway U.S. coronavirus outbreaks was too gradual.

“It’s like rain – you’re way out in the desert, like on the Navajo Nation, and you look out during the summer and you know that the rain is coming because the clouds are billowing up and you’ve got to prepare,” he said from his home in the Navajo capital of Window Rock, Arizona. “People started running around when it started raining. Before the rain came, we should have been all in sync with one another.”

Another complication has been disparate public health orders in the states that border the Navajo Nation.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham noted that school closures and stay-at-home orders came much earlier in her state than in neighboring Arizona and that officials with the Bureau of Indian Education didn’t immediately close schools. She’s pushing for a more coordinated effort in the region.

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