The Navajo Nation and White Mountain Apache Tribe chase down a virus
Contact-tracing programs in two areas hit hardest by COVID-19 are working
September 9, 2020
On a mild morning in April at Arizona's Whiteriver Indian Hospital, Dr. Ryan Close tested nasal swabs from two members of an eight-person household on the Fort Apache Reservation northwest of Phoenix. About half of the family had a runny nose and cough and had lost their sense of taste and smell - all symptoms of COVID-19 - and, by late morning, the two tests had come back positive. Close's contact-tracing work began.
For Close and his team, each day begins like this: with a list of new COVID-19 cases - new sources that may have spread the virus. The 35 or so people on the team must rapidly test people, isolate the infected and visit the homes of any who may have been exposed. Again, and again. Recently, though, their cases have declined, due in part to something rare, at least in the United States: an effective contact-tracing and testing plan. Both the White Mountain Apache and nearby Navajo Nation experienced some of the country's worst infection rates, yet both began to curb their cases in mid-June and mid-July, respectively, due to their existing health department resources and partnerships, stringent public health orders, testing and robust contact tracing.
"We've seen a significant decline in cases on the reservation at the same time that things were on fire for the rest of the state," said Close, an epidemiologist and physician at Whiteriver Indian Hospital, an Indian Health Service facility.