The White Mountains Apache Tribe has imposed a tough shutdown and shelter in place order to contain a dangerous increase in cases of COVID-19, even as the rest of the state’s businesses remain open and people have begun to move around more freely.

Meanwhile, Navajo County continues to scramble to react to a new surge of COVID-19 cases, from making sure police officers have protective gear to convincing residents to wear masks in public.

This week, The Navajo County Sheriff’s office landed a $260,000 federal grant to help cover extra costs caused by the pandemic.The grant will cover $205,000 in overtime costs and $57,000 in equipment, mostly masks and gloves and other equipment to protect deputies.

Navajo County also issued a heartfelt appeal for residents to avoid crowds, wear masks and wash hands frequently as cases continue to rise.

Navajo County has suffered one of the worst outbreaks in the country, with infection and death rates three or four times the statewide average. Moreover, the Navajo County jail has at least two employees with the virus and grave concerns about a spread in those conditions. The outbreak has been especially severe on the Navajo Reservation – with the highest infection and death rates in the country. The White Mountain Apache Reservation this week also issued an alert to a growing cluster of cases there.

The Tribe imposed a 57-hour lockdown on the reservation, to be followed by a two-week shelter in place order. The order shut down tribal offices and established the Hon-Dah Hotel as an isolation and quarantine site.

During the lockdown order people can only leave their homes while traveling to and from work or seeking medical care. During the shelter-in-place period until July 17, people can also leave their homes to buy necessities only between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The tribe now requires masks in all public places and has also banned gatherings, like funerals, religious gatherings and other events. The order closes tribal forests to recreation.

The Navajo County grant will cover the cost of 1,000 N95 protective masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, thermometers, coveralls, face shields and bleach – although most of the money will cover overtime costs.

Navajo County on Wednesday had 3,248 cases and 114 deaths, including 82 new cases and 17 additional deaths reported on Wednesday. The county has a death rate of 101 and an infection rate of 2,878 per 100,000. That compares to a statewide rate of 20 deaths and 834 cases per 100,000.

An alarming 17 percent of the 12,000 tests done so far have come back positive compared to 9 percent statewide.

The county this week put out a release calling on residents to wear masks in public, wash hands, avoid groups and avoid social distancing, in response to a surge in new cases.

“We are asking our local citizens and businesses to take individual responsibility to help protect yourself and others,” said the release from the county health department.

Supervisor Jason Whiting said “our sense of community is a little different here in Navajo County. We’ve shown time and time again that we come together to support and help each other. Now is the time to help protect the most vulnerable among us and push our local economy forward. Individual responsibility is the key, first keep yourself healthy with good hygiene. Second, help protect others with a simple face covering when you can’t maintain good distance. For most of u, this means slipping on a face covering before running into a store.”

However, the county has not yet issued a mandatory face mask requirement, which Maricopa County did this week. Gov. Doug Ducey authorized cities and counties to issue such a rule, depending on the local conditions.

Navajo County public health director Jeff Lee said “if each person does what they can to keep themselves healthy, more people can get back to work and we can be confident that our hospitals will have the capacity to step in and help when one of us does fall ill or has other healthcare concerns.”

Since Gov. Ducey on May 15 lifted the stay-at-home order, cases among those under 18 have increased eight-fold, cases for those under 45 have increased four-fold and cases among those over 65 have doubled. Health experts say younger people have resumed socializing, often in crowds and rarely protected by face masks. Older residents remain more cautious, since 75 percent of the deaths have been among those over 65 in Arizona. However, the rapid spread among younger people leaves the elders increasing vulnerable.

Some 85 percent of the state’s hospital and intensive care unit beds are already full, with COVID-19 cases accounting for about a third of the hospitalized patients.

The health department release concluded, We urge all Navajo County to continue to follow social distancing guidelines, to wash and sanitize your hands regularly, avoid touching your face, stay home if you are sick or don’t feel well and follow the requirements in the Governor’s order. If we are vigilant, then we can slow and contain the spread of COVID-19. We ask all to make the effort to follow the requirements put in place by the Governor’s order, which can be found at https://azgovernor.gov/governor/news/2020/06/governor-ducey-announces-enhanced-covid-19-action-plan.”

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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