Navajo Nation president expresses concern over county jail conditions

While New Mexico grapples with a delayed roll-out of reopening businesses and cancelled public events, some detention centers are grappling with increasing numbers of COVID-19. 

A privately run prison in Otero County, which houses both state and federal detainees, has seen a dramatic increase in cases of the disease. 

But now a county jail in northern New Mexico with hundreds of reported cases since March has caught the attention of at least one tribal leader. 

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez sent a letter to San Juan County leaders last week calling for an investigation into how the county jail is run and what is being done to prevent the spread of COVID-19. A portion of the Navajo Nation is in San Juan County and, like the county jail, has seen a high number of positive cases. In his letter, Nez cited a phone call from someone whose relative is in the San Juan County Adult Detention Center (SJCADC). The caller, Nez wrote, said the jail is lacking adequate ventilation, no separation of infected inmates, no laundry service and little to no sanitation efforts by jail officials. 

“How is SJCADC providing for the respect and dignity of the Detainees with a safe and secure environment that is maintained for operational readiness?” Nez asked in the letter. 

He went on to say that he would like to see county officials look into the conditions at the jail. 

“An investigation into the SJCADC operations and more specifically during these times of unprecedented crisis is requested, along with remedies for accountability and responsibility to do the right thing,” he wrote. 

The Navajo Nation did not respond to interview requests. In response, Chairman of the San Juan County Commission Jack Fortner wrote a letter disputing the allegation that inmates are subjected to sub-par conditions. 

Fortner wrote that the jail accepted an offer from the New Mexico Department of Health to provide guidance from Infectious Disease Bureau Medical Director Dr. Aja Sanzone.

In Gallup, surrounded by the Navajo Nation, a pandemic crosses paths with homelessness, hate and healers

GALLUP, N.M. — At the end of the Howard Johnson Hotel’s orange and white hallway, Dr. Caleb Lauber paused by a mirror as if he were lost. The mirror was an invention of the crafty security guards who’d leaned it against a chair, allowing them to quickly see around the corner in case any guests, all COVID-19 positive, should leave their rooms. Lauber worked 60, sometimes 80-hour weeks, caring for the homeless that Gallup had arranged to shelter at local hotels. He’d seen 500 of these patients in the past month. And now his memory was failing. “What’s the room number?” he asked his nursing assistant for the second time as they rounded the corner.  

This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished here with permission.

Planting hope amid a plague

SHIPROCK, N.M. — Four miles down Farm Road, just off U.S. Route 491 in northern Navajo, a group of young Diné used what was left of daylight in early May to plant onions and potatoes on Yellow Wash Farm. As the novel coronavirus stretched its way through Navajoland, leaving a trail of heartbreak and uncertainty, the four Navajo men, a mixture of family and friends from Shiprock, picked up their seeds and broke the earth with their shovels. This story first appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission. By month’s end, the Navajo Nation would have the highest per-capita infection rate in the country, surpassing even New York state. The outbreak cut a swath across the vast reservation, from outposts in Arizona to the mesas and high desert in northwest New Mexico, where Shiprock, or Naatʼáanii Nééz — the largest Navajo community — became a hotspot seemingly overnight.

Masks sold by former White House official to Navajo hospitals don’t meet FDA standards

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox. The Indian Health Service acknowledged on Wednesday that 1 million respirator masks it purchased from a former Trump White House official do not meet Food and Drug Administration standards for “use in healthcare settings by health care providers.”

The IHS statement calls into question why the agency purchased expensive medical gear that it now cannot use as intended. The masks were purchased as part of a frantic agency push to supply Navajo hospitals with desperately needed protective equipment in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. ProPublica revealed last week that Zach Fuentes, President Donald Trump’s former deputy chief of staff, formed a company in early April and 11 days later won a $3 million contract with IHS to provide specialized respirator masks to the agency for use in Navajo hospitals.

Members of congress want answers on $3 million contract for possibly substandard masks for Navajo Nation

Members of Congress from New Mexico and Arizona sought answers about a $3 million contract given to a former White House staffer to supply masks to the Navajo Nation. The masks may be substandard, as the Navajo Nation deals with the highest rate of COVID-19 cases in the country. “The IHS facilities serving the Tribe are in dire need of PPE to combat the virus and ensure medical personnel are protected from potential exposure,” the lawmakers wrote. “Accordingly, we’re also concerned by reports that the federal contract to supply PPE to the Navajo IHS Service Area was awarded to a company established by a former senior official in the White House with limited competitive bidding and no prior federal contracting experience.”

Update: Masks sold by former White House official to Navajo hospitals don’t meet FDA standards

The letter, led by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall and U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, requests a number of answers from Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee, the Director of the Indian Health Service. 

The Navajo Nation spreads across parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. As of Tuesday, Navajo Nation health officials had confirmed 4,842 COVID-19 cases and 158 deaths related to the disease.

The feds gave a former White House official $3 million to supply masks to Navajo Hospitals. Some may not work.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox. A former White House aide won a $3 million federal contract to supply respirator masks to Navajo Nation hospitals in New Mexico and Arizona 11 days after he created a company to sell personal protective equipment in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Zach Fuentes, President Donald Trump’s former deputy chief of staff, secured the deal with the Indian Health Service with limited competitive bidding and no prior federal contracting experience. The IHS told ProPublica it has found that 247,000 of the masks delivered by Fuentes’ company — at a cost of roughly $800,000 — may be unsuitable for medical use.

Groups rally outside Cibola County jail

Without intervention, as much as 100 percent of immigrants in detention centers could test positive for COVID-19 within the next 90 days and overwhelm state healthcare systems, according to a recent study. The study, produced by the Washington D.C., nonprofit advocacy group the Government Accountability Project, states that, optimistically, 72 percent could become infected with COVID-19 in immigrant detention facilities. The projected 100 percent reflects the pessimistic estimation, the study says. Those projections mean that state health care systems would be overwhelmed, the study reports. A group of advocacy organizations organized a rally, called “Free Them All Friday,” which consisted of about 30 cars that drove around the Cibola County Correctional Center, which holds immigrant detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Friday afternoon to try to bring attention to this problem.

Guv orders Gallup lockdown to slow COVID-19 spread

As cases continue to grow in McKinley County, the governor invoked the state’s Riot Control Act to authorize a lockdown of Gallup, at the behest of both the outgoing and new mayor of the city. The state closed all roads into Gallup as of noon on Friday, ordered that essential businesses will be closed from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. and vehicles traveling in the city can only have a maximum of two individuals. The order from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said that people should remain sheltered in place at home unless they are traveling for essential or emergency outings. Gallup city police and the McKinley County Sheriff’s Department will help the New Mexico State police to enforce the emergency order. The order will run through noon on Monday, May 4.

NAACP officials keep wary eye on New Mexico data

A local advocacy group is keeping a watchful eye on equitable health care for African Americans during the pandemic. Pamelya Herndon, the first vice chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Albuquerque chapter, said the NAACP is not aware of discrimination against African-Americans during the pandemic in this state. But, the NAACP encouraged African-Americans to reach out to their local NAACP chapter if they experience prejudice during the public health emergency. One reason to worry is because African-Americans tend to have higher rates of high blood pressure and diabetes, which could put them at greater risk for mortality from COVID-19 related illness than whites. Herndon said she would like to see a plan put into place to better protect the African-American community, especially given the already present health disparities.

Chaco Canyon BLM

GoFundMe campaign raising funds to distribute supplies to Navajo Nation’s ‘far east’

A GoFundMe campaign is collecting monetary donations to help volunteers distribute food supplies and other goods to what’s known as the “Far Eastern” chapters of the Navajo Nation in the Greater Chaco region, where communities live in food deserts, lack access to running water and electricity, and are now battling an outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by a type of coronavirus. 

The campaign was launched by the Torreon Community Alliance, a non-profit in the Torreon and Star Lake Chapter area of the Navajo Nation. Mario Atencio, executive director of the nonprofit said families in the area have been hit hard by the economic ripples of the pandemic. Many families in the area rely on oil and gas for financial security. 

“The collapse of oil prices means the collapse in royalty monies, people are relying on that oil money,” Atencio said. “It’s just compounding. People are getting laid off.