COVID-19 in Arizona: Notes from a Volunteer Nurse on Navajo Nation

Updated: Aug 29

Now that I’m safely back in my cabin in Pine, after completing my strict two-week quarantine, I have had some time to reflect on the people I met on the Navajo Nation. I wanted to share a little bit about why I chose to volunteer as a nurse on Navajo Nation during this pandemic, my experiences there, and where I believe Arizona needs to go from here.

As a child growing up in Arizona, my family made several trips through the Navajo Nation. Each time, I was awestruck by the unique beauty of the landscape, people, and their culture.

In 2010, after completing my last military deployment as a senior medical advisor in Afghanistan, I returned to Arizona to retire from the U.S. Army and began a graduate program at Arizona State University. As a graduate student in Sustainable Solutions at ASU, I decided to follow my passion and research the environmental, social and economic conditions of the Navajo and Hopi communities. I was struck, by the many similarities I observed between the conditions of poverty and underdevelopment in Afghanistan, as those in our first nation communities here at home.

Moreover, having had the honor of serving with a number of Native Americans in the Army and AZ National Guard throughout my military career, I wanted to continue to develop my friendships and deepen my understanding of our tribal communities.

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across our country and my home state, it soon became evident that the Navajo and Hopi were being disproportionately devastated by the pandemic. Tribal nation community members make up less than 6% of Arizona’s population, but have suffered over 21% of our state’s COVID-19 deaths (according to the CDC).

So in May, I took my daughter’s converted campervan, Casper, to serve for a month as a nurse at the Tuba City Regional Health Care Facility, to assist the Navajo Nation with their COVID-19 response.

While in Tuba City, I took on a number of different, nursing support roles including: providing case management support for COVID-19 patients who had to be medically evacuated to Flagstaff or Phoenix hospitals; screening hospital visitors for symptoms; staffing the triage testing tent; and assisting during two of the three COVID-19 testing blitzes held in June. Those testing blitzes were staged in Tonalea and the Tuba City High School, and we successfully tested over 1,200 Navajo and Hopi community members in just 2 days.

During the month I spent volunteering, based out of The Trails Inn RV park, I met several nurses from around the country, who were also there to help with relief efforts on the Nation. I was also inspired to meet so many dedicated native healthcare providers and support staff at the Tuba City Regional Health Care center.

Working alongside these men and women, I developed a greater appreciation for the daily struggles and continuing adversity that our indigenous neighbors face, as well as a new sense of hope for their endurance and collective efforts to overcome their challenges.

Those challenges include the deadly impacts of years of uranium mining, which has left Navajo and Hopi workers and their families exposed to poisonous radiation. These uranium mining companies abandoned over 500 uranium mines on tribal land and native families have paid the ultimate price with cancer, birth defects and other deadly consequences.

It has also left much of their lands unfarmable, due to the radioactive waste that has leached into their soil, and the depletion of their groundwater.

Since the 1960s, water from the aquifer under the Navajo Nation has been sucked dry to slurry coal to the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) near Page. This power plant supplied Maricopa and Pima counties with electricity for decades, while 15,000 Navajo homes still don’t have electricity. Electricity generated from that same coal power plant was used to pump water from the Colorado River to Phoenix, while up to 40% of Navajos still don’t have access to running water. Although NGS was finally closed down in 2019, the aquifer has not been replenished, and that now contaminated water is lost forever.

Worse, despite their obstacles to growing their own food supply, the Navajo Nation—an area that covers the size of West Virginia—has only 13 grocery stores! To add insult to injury, the Bashas in Tuba City has been known to charge three times as much for basic necessities, as compared with grocery stores an hour and a half south in Flagstaff.

The malevolent combination of nutritional food deserts, coal-powered plants, coal and uranium mining on their lands has resulted in harm for generations of tribal nation members, leading to high incidences of diabetes, heart and lung disease, which further increase the risk of death from COVID-19. At the same time, because of the lack of running water and indoor plumbing, it is nearly impossible for many Navajo and Hopi members to wash their hands properly and prevent the spread of coronavirus and other communicable diseases.

Yet despite these social, economic and environmental injustices, the community members continue to be resilient in the face of their challenges.

I was particularly impressed by a group of about twenty young Navajo and Hopi community members, whom I encountered while they were gathered to distribute food that had been donated from a farm in Idaho. These young adults had taken the initiative to help their community by organizing a safe, drive-through food distribution operation, and leveraging social media to spread awareness and coordinate across the reservation. They made sure that each car received the amount of food needed for the number of family members living together in their home. While distributing food boxes, they practiced responsible social distancing and mask-wearing to limit any potential spread of the virus during their distribution work.

I also saw strength and commitment to the well-being of the community in the actions of President Jonathan Nez. As the elected head of the Navajo Nation, Nez showed the kind of strong, caring leadership needed in a pandemic to successfully safeguard his citizens. Despite significant pushback, he stood firm, prioritizing the health and wellbeing of his entire community. He not only mandated face masks in public, he also enacted clear stay-at-home measures and even enforced strict curfews and traffic lockdowns, to effectively reduce the further spread of the coronavirus.

Despite these success stories though, the devastating reality was that not a single person that I met while in Tuba City, had escaped the ravages of COVID-19: literally everyone I spoke with had either lost a family member or close friend to the disease or had been infected and gravely ill themselves.

While staffing the drive-thru testing tent, I met a woman who had tragically lost both her sisters to COVID-19. Her sisters had worked at the Tuba City Regional Health Care center, and I was devastated to discover later that one of those two sisters had been working as a case management nurse—the very position, I was there volunteering to fill.

After spending some time speaking to this woman who had lost both her siblings, I learned that she worked as a criminal investigator for missing indigenous women. She shared the horrific fact that thousands of indigenous women are currently missing.

After we spoke, I did some more digging and shockingly, I found that in 2019 alone, “nearly 5,600 Native American women were reported missing, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center.” Of the over 500 federally-recognized Native American tribes in the U.S., only a handful are legally allowed to prosecute non-native sexual predators who rape native women. Yet, one in three Native American women are raped during their lifetime, and in 86% of these cases, the assailant is non-native. This is an unconscionable atrocity.

When elected, I will work to ensure our state legislature acts to protect indigenous women and to help their families obtain social, economic and environmental justice.

The day I left Navajo Nation was bittersweet. It was a difficult, but affirming experience, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have been a resource to a people and place that I hold dear.

Now, as a result of Arizona re-opening too soon, we have had over 168,000 known coronavirus cases, 3,454 deaths, and Arizona is one of the worst hot spots in the country.

Unfortunately, because the rest of Arizona prematurely lifted its stay-at-home restrictions in early May, the Navajo Nation has now been forced to re-implement its 57-hour weekend lockdowns (including closing grocery stores and gas stations), and it has had to restrict people outside of the community from entering tribal lands.

As a nurse, who has seen the devastation of COVID-19 firsthand, and as a former senior medical advisor with over 35 years of healthcare experience, I want to make the following, urgent plea:

Please, put the safety and well being of your community first. Keep at least six feet apart in public places and wear a mask in public. And remember, someone does NOT have to show symptoms to be contagious and spread COVID-19!

Before returning to Pine, I was tested for COVID-19, via a nasopharyngeal swab, and the results came back negative, but I still quarantined for two weeks to be safe. For those who might also receive a negative result after a COVID-19 test, I want to emphasize that while testing positive is nearly 100% accurate, testing negative for COVID-19 is only accurate 80% of the time.

Until Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for re-opening are met in Arizona, I will continue to shelter in place as much as possible, and on those infrequent occasions when I do need to be in public, I will maintain safe distancing and wear a mask in public.

P.S. As I reflect on my time in Tuba City, I also want to give a heartfelt thanks to my team for keeping our campaign running without skipping a beat, so that I could serve in the most direct way possible. And I’d like to extend a special thank you to the following individuals: Keithetta for providing me snacks and blue corn mush for breakfast, Valerie for bringing me fresh produce, Ellen Ferreira for sending me extra scrubs, Jackie and John Rogers for sending a care package, and all of the supporters who sent me cards. Additionally, Randy Crewse, Agnes and Oscar, Jeanne, Nicholas and Wesley Blaes, each of whom donated masks, mask spacers, hand sanitizer, spray bottles, face shields, shoe covers, and gloves to the Tuba City Regional Health Care general services to help assist Navajo Nation.


Paid for by French for Arizona. Authorized by Felicia French.

Felicia French is a Colonel USA (retired). Use of her military rank, job titles, and photographs in uniform

do not imply endorsement by the U.S. Army, Army National Guard or Department of Defense.