FARMINGTON — Aside from a construction crew working on Main Street, downtown Farmington was nearly devoid of pedestrians around noon on a recent weekday.
A flashing electric sign said it all: “Stay home.”
But working inside city buildings, locals knew a storm was brewing and headed their way. With COVID-19 sweeping through the Four Corners region, taking a devastating toll among the Navajo community that lives in and around the biggest city in the region, Farmington’s medical and political leaders have spent the past few weeks building their own weapons in what they acknowledge is a war against an unseen enemy.
Austin Jacobs fermented hand sanitizers, not beer, in vats in the back room of Three Rivers Brewery on Main Street.
Inside Cody Waldroup’s ABC Canvas factory, Marshall Escojeda made protective face masks instead of tents, awnings and boat covers.
And within the five-story San Juan Regional Medical Center, the biggest hospital in the region, doctors, nurses and other staff members were preparing for the opening ripples of New Mexico’s first surge.
Though many members of his staff expressed confidence they could handle the the expected surge, Jeff Bourgeois, CEO and president of the hospital, acknowledged, “I’m nervous. I’m nervous for our staff. I’m nervous for people who seek our care. And not because we are not ready, but because we don’t know exactly what is going to happen. It’s kept me up at night.”
Though experts say COVID-19 patients will likely cluster in various places at various times in the next few months, northwestern New Mexico is where it is spreading with frightening speed.
As of Saturday, San Juan County had 149 cases. A week ago, it was 59.
Given its size as the biggest city in the area, the bull’s-eye is on the hospital in Farmington, which took in its first few critical patients last week, said Dr. Erin Philpott, a hospitalist and chairwoman of the facility’s infection control committee. As of late last week, the 194-bed hospital had 15 COVID-19 patients. With San Juan County’s numbers rising by the day, more are certain to follow.
“There’s so much that is unknown about this,” Philpott said. “It’s difficult for scientists, for people who like black and white. It’s really unsettling for everybody.”
Dr. Brad Greenberg, an emergency medicine physician at the hospital, said while the novel coronavirus could be compared to an oncoming disaster like a hurricane, tornado or flood, the lack of hard facts about it “makes us rely upon the things that are tangible — our personal protection equipment, hand-washing, embracing scientific principles as we treat patients.”
“I don’t know yet what success might look like in this — maybe flattening the curve and maybe not a lot of people will die from this,” he added. “But the success we get from this now is where and how we pull together as a community.”
People in Farmington say they are doing just that — and hoping their efforts will give the area a fighting chance.
Referring to the hospital’s readiness plan, Mayor Nate Duckett — whose wife works at the medical center as a labor-delivery nurse — said he feels the area is in good hands.
“I think our residents are taking the threat seriously,” Duckett said. “I’ve seen a big decline in the number of people hanging out in groups or being out on the street.”
About one-third of Farmington’s 45,000 residents are Native Americans, mostly Navajo. The virus has ravaged the Navajo Nation, with a spread that extends into northwestern Arizona and south into Gallup, a city locked in its own battle against the respiratory infection.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said he is frightened by its indiscriminate spread through age groups: Many of the positive cases in the area, he said, are between the ages of 25 and 40. And yet, it’s also created devastation to elders in the region.
“The ones who are the most vulnerable are the elderly,” he said.
While blasting political leaders in Washington, D.C., for being slow to respond to the crisis on Native lands, Nez said he thinks regional medical centers like those in Gallup and Farmington are doing their best to help his people.
Billson Austin, a Navajo from Arizona who lives in Farmington and worked at Three Rivers Brewery until it laid off most of its staff following the state’s restrictions on dining at restaurants and bars, said he thinks people in Farmington are “trying to help” everyone.
His girlfriend is a nurse at a hospital in nearby Shiprock, where he goes for medical care because it is free for Navajos, he said.
He said he worries about her and all health care workers who are exposed to patients who test positive.
“I think it’s going to overwhelm us,” he said.
Bourgeois acknowledged the Navajo Nation outbreak “will definitely impact us here.” But he also said the hospital moved early to prepare for the threat and has its own drive-by testing process, 194 acute-care beds and enough personal protection gear for its staff.
“We are as well resourced as we can be right now,” he said.
Duckett said Farmington might have a better chance than some communities in fighting back because local health care officials acted early — reaching out to peers in other states to track the spread of the virus. Bourgeois echoed that sentiment, noting the hospital’s emergency preparedness committee began planning for the pandemic some 12 weeks ago, long before the first positive cases and deaths in New Mexico.
Volunteers from the ranks of the elderly and college students, drawn home by the closure of their schools, have come together to take part in group efforts to make personal protective gear as supplies run down or out, Duckett said.
Over at Three Rivers Brewery, Jacobs and Waldroup are among those helping out. Both are natives of Farmington who want their community to do better than just survive COVID-19. Both said there’s a collective grit in the area, much of it coming from the farming and ranching spirit that gave rise to the city.
“If you choose to be part of a community, you have to stand up and fight for it,” Waldroup said. “And this is a fight.”
When he learned his business was considered nonessential and must close as part of the state’s efforts to restrict movement, Waldroup said, he wanted to find a way to remain relevant and keep his employees on salary. He also has been working with a colleague at PESCO, an oil-and-gas supplies firm, to make face guards for medical professionals. They are donating those supplies to workers on the front lines, he said.
Greenberg said the hospital has adequate personal protection gear, but should the pandemic continue for weeks or months, officials might have to look for a way to safely recondition their equipment to reuse it.
That’s why community support to manufacture supplies makes all the difference, Duckett said.
Jacobs, assistant distiller and brewer at Three Rivers Brewery, said there’s no better hand sanitizer than 100-proof liquor sanitizer.
The Farmington native said the brewery has been donating sanitizer to first responders and others who are dealing with COVID-19 patients. The brewery already has given away four batches, “each about 15 to 20 gallons” of the stuff, he said.
The peak will come and go and life will return to normal, Jacobs said: “I’m scared for the community. I’m scared for the whole world.”
Philpott said she thinks the collective, homegrown efforts of people in Farmington will make a difference — if not immediately, then perhaps a year from now, when everyone will be able to reflect on how they reacted to the crisis.
“The unity and collegiality is just inspiring to see among different countries and different states and different cities and humans,” she said. “I hope that is something we continue to benefit from as a country and people a year from now.”
Escojeda, who shelters at home with his family when he’s not working on face masks, said he can’t wait for the day when an “all clear” sign goes up so he can take his children to the park to play again.
There’s something else he really wants to start doing once this is all over.
“Live,” he said.