Feb 3, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden gives Navajo Nation a disaster declaration over COVID-19

Carlita Bergen holds a shovel as Navajo Nation police officer Carolyn Tallsalt smooths dirt over COVID-19 victim Arnold Billy's grave in Tuba City, Arizona.

Navajo Nation members pay respect to COVID-19 victim Arnold Billy in Tuba City, Ariz. PHOTO: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

President Biden declared Wednesday that a major disaster exists for the Navajo Nation over COVID-19 and ordered more federal assistance to fight the pandemic at the nation's largest Native American reservation.

Why it matters: The Navajo Nation, like many Indigenous communities across the U.S., faces a housing shortage that has forced multiple family members to share small homes and a lack of running water that create the opportunity for superspreader events.

  • COVID-19 has claimed more than 1,000 lives on the Navajo Nation.
  • More than 28,000 cases have been reported on the sprawling reservation of 173,000 people.
  • The virus recently killed former tribal President Albert Hale.

Details: Under the disaster declaration, federal funding is available to the Navajo Nation and certain private nonprofit organizations for emergency protective measures.

  • The declaration came after Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez went with Biden officials to request more COVID-19 vaccines and asked for a disaster declaration.

What they're saying: "The Navajo Nation has also stepped up with millions of dollars of our own funding, health care workers, and resources to fight COVID-19. This is a great step forward and now we have to step up our efforts and coordinate with FEMA,” Nez said.

  • The Navajo Nation declared a Public Health State of Emergency on March 11, 2020, just days prior to its first confirmed case of COVID-19.

What’s next: The Navajo Nation now must get enough health care workers in place to administer the vaccine and work with state officials in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah to ensure its tribal members living off tribal lands also get vaccinated.

  • Other tribal communities may seek a disaster declaration where the virus has disproportionately hit their members.
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