Navajo County has declared an emergency, mostly to get in line for state and federal grants to help it cope with the escalating costs of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Apache County has also declared an emergency.

Navajo County has also ordered the closure of restaurants, bars, gyms, theaters and other “non-essential” businesses that bring groups of people together, according to Assistant County Manager Brian Layton.

As of Tuesday, confirmed cases in Navajo County had topped 32, apparently all of them on the Navajo Reservation in the northern half of the county. A cluster of cases linked initially to foreign travel developed there, and the Navajo Nation has ordered some communities to shelter in place.

Apache County on Tuesday was still reporting just four COVID-19 cases.

Gov. Doug Ducey declared a statewide emergency and his order required the shutdown of restaurants and bars and other businesses in any county with a confirmed case of COVID-19.

Layson said the county is working with restaurants and bars to help them shift to takeout operations, still allowed under the governor’s emergency declaration. The county health department will work with restaurants not used to filling takeout orders to make sure they keep food at the proper temperature and follow other regulations, said Layton.

In the meantime, Navajo County this week moved toward minimizing face-to-face contact between employees and between employees and the public. The county will have as many employees work from home as possible and stagger shifts to limit the number of people in contact with one another.

The county will also shift as much contact with the public as possible to phones, the internet and email.

The emergency declaration accomplishes several things.

First, it eases county procurement rules to make it easier quickly buy critical supplies like respirators, masks, gowns and other medical equipment.

Second, it means the county can seek state and federal support for the costs of coping with the pandemic.

For instance, the county’s two full time public nurses and two to four contract nurses are now working overtime to track all the contacts of people who may have been infected, said Layton.

The Navajo Nation and the Indian Health Services are doing the contract tracing on the reservation. However, the county nurses are also following up with many cases involving travel or exposure to the virus, even if people haven’t tested positive for COVID-19.

“As soon as a physician alerts us to a possible exposure, we start checking with them twice a day,” said Layton. “We don’t wait for a positive test to come back.”

“Everyone starts tracking the time and expenditures related to the emergency. We can get as much as 75 percent reimbursement for those costs,” said Layton.

In the meantime, the county shifted the Tuesday board of supervisors meeting to Friday. The county will set up a way for people to listen to the meeting and even take part by phone, to limit the number of people who come to the meeting.

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