California Sends Dozens of Healthcare Workers to Navajo Nation to Assist in Pandemic

A UCSF doctor and nurse outside a coronavirus patient's room at a motel outside of Gallup, New Mexico.  (Aylin, Ulku)

Healthcare workers from around California, including 35 doctors and nurses from UCSF, are caring for patients in border towns surrounding the Navajo Nation. More than 5,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus, and the illness has killed 167 individuals on the nation's largest Native American reservation.

UCSF doctor Aylin Ulku has been caring for patients recovering or quarantining in motel rooms in Gallup, New Mexico on the edge of the reservation. She fears the virus will leave a lasting impact on the community's culture and memory as elders who carry the Navajo's oral history pass away.

"I don't think there's a single family that I have met that hasn't been touched by death from the coronavirus," Ulku says. "There is an enormous amount of fear and an enormous amount of anxiety from community members who are too afraid to go home or their family members are too afraid to let them return."

The Navajo Nation, which extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, has the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases in the United States, surpassing even New York state. By comparison, even though San Francisco's population is five time larger, it has only seen one fifth as many deaths.

The illness is spreading rapidly across the reservation where multi-generational housing is common and a third of homes do not have running water or electricity.

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“COVID 19 is tearing across the fault lines of inequity, ravaging communities already hard hit by historic and present day marginalization,” said UCSF associate professor Dr. Sriram Shamasunder, who co-founded the UCSF HEAL Initiative, which trains doctors to provide assistance to communities in need.

HEAL first sent a team of 21 nurses and doctors to assist in three Navajo Nation hospitals in late April and sent another team of 19 in late May, according to UCSF's news service.

"I'm just struck with how deeply the infrastructure has been neglected and eroded or just never existed, where access to clean water is just really not an option," Ulku said. "I have a patient who is in her 80s, and she and her husband are unable to return to their home. ... The daughter who used to haul water for them and make sure that they would have nutritious food ... died of coronavirus last week. And while mourning her daughter's loss, this older woman is having to face the fact that she may never be able to return to her home again because there's no one else who can help her to get her water and food."

Many of the doctors and nurses volunteering on the Navajo reservation have asked to extend their stints by several weeks, according to UCSF.

KQED's Monica Lam contributed to this story.