The COVID-19 outbreak raging through the Navajo Nation has turned McKinley County into one of the state’s worst hot spots, even as state, local and tribal government officials work to quell the contagion.
The 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation extends into McKinley and San Juan counties, which have become part of a COVID-19 epicenter in New Mexico’s northwest corner.
McKinley added 45 new cases Tuesday, pushing its total to 460. With a population of nearly 72,000, the county now has roughly a fifth of the state’s total cases, second only to Bernalillo County’s 585.
According to state data, Native Americans now account for 41.5 percent of the people in New Mexico infected with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, even though they make up less than 11 percent of the state’s population.
There were 21 new cases reported Tuesday in San Juan County, bringing its total to 314, and five new cases in Sandoval County, which has a total of 322 — most in pueblo communities.
New Mexico’s number of confirmed cases rose to 2,072 Tuesday, and the state reported seven more deaths — one of them a McKinley County man in his 60s with underlying health conditions.
So far, 65 people have died of COVID-19 in New Mexico, and 119 are now hospitalized.
Officials say an array of problems exacerbates the outbreak in the Navajo Nation, including in McKinley County, where Navajos make up most of the population. Many tribal members lack access to medical care, internet connections, healthy food and even running water, which makes regular hand-washing difficult.
Also, the tribe’s recent weekend lockdowns, imposed to keep people indoors and curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, have had unintended effects on the Gallup area, county officials say.
Some members of the Navajo Nation who seek to avoid being shut in their homes from 8 p.m. Friday to 5 a.m. Monday go to Gallup for the weekend — and many buy liquor and stay at local campsites, where they can mingle with the area’s “transient homeless” and create a transmission hub for the virus, said Doug Decker, McKinley County attorney.
“Any time you get people that are not staying the 6 feet apart and they’re not doing good hygiene, it is possibly adding to a higher [COVID-19] incidence,” Decker said.
The city of Gallup recently passed an ordinance banning liquor sales at convenience stores. The ban, combined with the influx of weekend lodgers from the Navajo Nation, created long lines at several Gallup grocery stores, with many of the patrons not adhering to the proper distance, Decker said.
Some of the 50 National Guard troops the state sent to the Gallup area last week to help fight the pandemic worked to maintain social distancing among the customers, City Manager Maryanne Ustick said.
National Guard members also set up two temporary drive-thru testing sites for the weekend. And some are doing administrative work at a detoxification center after 10 or so staffers were potentially exposed to COVID-19 and are quarantined, Ustick said.
“We really appreciate the National Guard coming,” Ustick said. “Just their presence has had a calming effect.”
The Navajo Nation spans New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Its outbreak, which first emerged March 17, had escalated to more than 1,300 cases by Monday, according to the tribe. At least 44 tribal members have died of the illness.
The New Mexico Governor’s Office announced 103 new COVID-19 cases statewide Tuesday. Santa Fe County had two new cases, for a total of 88. Bernalillo County added 20 new cases.
Five of the new deaths occurred in Bernalillo County, including four residents of the La Vida Llena retirement home in Albuquerque: a woman in her 70s, a woman in her 80s and two men in their 90s. At least 16 residents of La Vida Llena have died following an outbreak at the facility that infected numerous residents and staff.
The fifth Bernalillo County death was a resident of the Central Desert Behavioral Health facility in Albuquerque.
A woman in her 80s from Chaves County and a man in his 60s from McKinley County also died of COVID-19.