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Winslow Doctor Speaks About Coronavirus On Navajo Nation

Winslow Indian Health Care Center

There are now more than 100 known cases of the coronavirus disease on the Navajo Nation. Doctors trying to diagnosis and treat the disease face serious challenges in this rural region, including the vast distances between patients and hospitals. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Dr. Gregory Jarrin about the unfolding crisis. He’s a general surgeon at the Winslow Indian Health Care Center.

Melissa Sevigny: There’s a lot of concern with coronavirus overwhelming the capacity of our healthcare workers and our hospitals. Do you have a sense that that’s happening in Winslow?

Dr. Gregory Jarrin: In Winslow recently we’ve had three deaths in the community, none of which reached the hospital alive. We’ve been getting increasing numbers of cases in our emergency room and increasing numbers being diagnosed. Over the weekend we’ve had multiple admissions, but we are not yet overwhelmed. However in Tuba City and Flagstaff I know they have been much more overwhelmed. In Tuba City… they’re having a problem with staffing, there are a lot of people who have called out sick.

Can you talk a little bit about the challenges that come with being a doctor in a rural community? It sounds like at least one of those challenges is the very long distances ambulances have to drive.

Yeah, we cover the entire southern tier of the Navajo Nation at the Winslow Indian Healthcare Center. We have upwards of 18 or 19 thousand patients we take care of. The further reaches are at least 85 miles away in Ganado near Hopi. Patients do have a long way to go. Right now there are lot of people who are in private enterprise that do patient transport, but none of those are available right now because of the fear of the virus, so right now we have a limited number of ambulances to go get patients.  

Are you finding shortages of medical supplies that you need?

Not yet, but we know the wave will eventually come.… We’re aware of the fact that we may run short of certain things. We’ve gone out and bought extra gloves for ourselves. Some people today were making shields and face masks to protect eyes. I think we’ve going to run out of masks soon in our clinic…. And I think the frustrating thing is the fact that we know there’s federal monies that have been supposedly dedicated to us, upwards of a hundred million dollars, that money hasn’t made it way to us yet. That’s the fear, that we’re not going to be properly funded. I think the federal government’s response has been incredibly slow to this entire pandemic.

Can you tell me about how people are feeling right now? Are there a lot of people coming in with mild symptoms and they want to get checked out and see what’s going on?

Yes, that’s one of the difficult things too, it was so difficult to get the testing going. Specific County regulations have made it such that you have to have very specific criteria, fever, runny nose, cold-like symptoms. But not everyone presents like that. I think the limitation of testing is just awful. Even now we had a health care provider that needed to be tested on Saturday, and we’re not going to get his results until Wednesday or Thursday. So he’s going to be home waiting for to get the test to come back.

Are you concerned—and you can tell me if this is too personal a question—but are you concerned about bringing something home from the hospital to your own family?

Absolutely. Just as you called, I’m just coming home, and I went right upstairs. I have my two daughters at home. I change my clothes, put them away, and shower right away. I made sure I got my Clorox bleach to every handle touched, I made sure it was clean. I’m absolutely very concerned about bringing this home.

Dr. Jarrin, thank you for speaking with me today.  

Melissa, it’s my pleasure.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that the National Guard helped put up a triage center in Tuba City. This is incorect. It was placed on March 18 in collaboration with the To'NaneesDizi Chapter.


Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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