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WHITE MOUNTAINS — Navajo County now has at least three people infected by the COVID-19 virus on the Navajo Nation.

Navajo County health officials in a press released said health workers have contacted people affiliated with the COVID-19 victims – so if you haven’t been contacted you have most likely not been exposed.

Navajo Nation officials told the Arizona Republic that the first local case involved a 46-year-old tribal member from Chilchinbeto, the other cases appear to be in the same area.

County officials have been participating in many meetings and conference calls in order to stay informed.

“Jeff Lee, Navajo County Public Health Director and his staff have been in constant contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Arizona Department of Health Services — often communicating several times a day,” said Navajo County Assistant County Manager Bryan Layton in an e-mail. “The Navajo County Public Health Department is also monitoring the Arizona health Alert Network, which is a mass notification system for all health providers and public health departments across the state,” he added.

“County Administration also participates in a daily conference call with Gov. Ducey’s Office for County Supervisors and Managers. Regular conference calls are also coordinated through the National Association of Counties (NACo) and the county participated on Wednesday in a conference call with U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. This situation is so fluid right now, so these coordinating calls are a fast and effective way to share information, ideas, and coordinate action,” he said.

Even as the county gathers information, they also share it with local officials.

“As the Navajo County Public Health Department (NCPHD) receives communication and guidance, this information is then shared and discussed locally. The Public Health Department holds weekly conference calls with City and Town officials to share information and answer questions. NCPHD also has separate weekly conference calls to discuss specific needs throughout the County with Healthcare Facility Administration staff; Law Enforcement officials; K-12 School Superintendents; and Healthcare Facility Infectious Disease staff. The most current information is also constantly updated on the County’s COVID-19 dashboard: http://navajocountyaz.gov/coronavirus . Links to the dashboard and other updates are also provided on the Navajo County Facebook page,” he wrote.

“We are looking out for you,” shared Jeff Lee, Navajo County Public Health Director.

“We want you to stay safe and take care of yourself. We have had positive cases identified in Navajo County and we are aggressively investigating where these individuals have been and who they may have had contact with. If you haven’t been contacted by public health officials, your risk of exposure to these cases is extremely limited,” he said in an email.

Apache County Health Director Preston Rabin said he and his staff have been doing the same kinds of activities.

County, city, state and federal officials are conferring almost daily to keep up with the epidemic and determine whether to take the weighty step of declaring a local emergency, which could lead to the shutdown of businesses.

So far, neither Navajo nor Apache County have declared an emergency, which would provide opportunities for additional federal funding as well as provide for broader government powers to order business closures.

“That is something we’ve been looking at … it’s not something the county is taking action on just yet,” Layton said.

“We are completely swimming in the deep end of the pool for the first time with many aspects of this epidemic. Because of what we’ve learned, there are a lot of scenarios you just couldn’t have prepared for. I’ve been very impressed with how we’ve been able to come together and share resources across the board and get things taken care of,” Raban said.

Layton said that the Navajo County’s focus right now is on “being proactive to help protect our communities,” and that involves “performing disease investigations, contact tracing and quarantine monitoring,” he said.

“As soon as a physician suspects a patient has COVID-19, public health department staff begin to trace where that person has been and who they may have been in contact with,” he explained. “Infectious disease nurses are then tasked with monitoring that person twice a day for 14 days to make sure they aren’t showing symptoms,” Layton said

Both Raban and Layton noted that health officials still have a very limited capacity to test for the virus.

“Because testing capacity has not met expectations nationally or in the state, public health department staff have also been working to educate providers on how to get authorization for testing,” Layton said.

Raban said people with serious symptoms and people with exposure to someone who has tested positive for the virus can still get free tests. Local healthcare workers can take a throat swab and send it to the state lab in Phoenix. However, the tests can involve a delay of two days or more to get results.

Despite federal promises to make test kits much more widely available, most people who want a test can’t get it. Rabin noted that two local labs have stepped up to run the tests for people who don’t meet the still-strict federal requirements. However, they can’t get enough approved test kits to meet the demand, resulting in a backlog for people who don’t meet the federal criteria but want to get tested.

The shortage of test kits has required the system to make judgements about who needs the test most urgently.

“We’re trying to get the people showing symptoms up front, rather than someone not showing any symptoms,” Raban said.

He noted that doctors who have taken samples have sometimes called, seeking a test to rule out coronavirus. The early symptoms include a fever, a cough and even a runny nose – all similar to the flu, which continues to circulate in the county although at lower levels than last year.

“If somebody called and said we’d like to rule this out, I’d need to know where the person has been. If they haven’t been out of the country, haven’t traveled anywhere,” then the case might not qualify for the sample to go down to the state lab.

In the meantime, local officials continue to confer about whether to call a state of emergency to further limit spread. So far, communities in Apache County have issued an emergency declaration, but earlier this week both Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside approved emergency declaration that give mayors broad powers to order closures and other actions they may need to protect public health. The emergency declarations give municipalities the power to further limit public gatherings and shut down things like bars and restaurants. The counties would have the same authority in unincorporated areas — if they adopt an emergency declaration.

Phoenix and Tucson have already declared emergencies and ordered many businesses to temporarily close.

The point of such restrictions is to slow the spread of the virus to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system. Nationally, hospitals have about 1 million beds and only about 100,000 intensive care unit beds.

Some worst-case scenario projections suggest the virus could infect half the population in the next 12-18 months. If that happens, it could ultimately kill 1-2 million Americans, if you accept the rough estimate of a death rate of perhaps 1 percent. The experience of other countries like Italy suggests some 80 percent of those infected will have mild, flu-like symptoms and not need much treatment. However, 20 percent could have more serious symptoms and 6 percent could have potentially life-threatening symptoms. This would produce some 9 million people in potential need of hospitalization. When it comes to the capacity of the healthcare system, it makes a big difference whether those cases come in a rush or end up spread out over 18 months.

Fortunately, Apache County so far has no cases and health officials are moving quickly to track, test and isolate the people who were in contact with the three confirmed cases on the Navajo Reservation.

Health officials believe an infected person can pass the virus along for two to seven days before symptoms develop.

Jason Whiting, Navajo County board chair said,

“This is uncharted territory for all of us. We’re all trying to make good decisions for the health and safety of our families and our communities. This situation is constantly evolving and new information—good and bad—is always coming out. Please follow the County’s COVID-19 dashboard and the County’s Facebook for reliable, factual information that has been vetted by experts at the CDC and the State. We encourage you to stay calm and take care of yourselves and your families by following good recommendations like proper handwashing, don’t go to work if you are sick, and take social distancing seriously.”

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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