Hopi Tribe Battles COVID-19 Surge As Testing Positivity Reaches Twice Arizona’s Rate

Jan 13, 2021

The percentage of positive COVID-19 tests among the Hopi Tribe is more than double Arizona’s statewide rate and higher than peak nationwide numbers seen last year. The positive test rate is a key indicator of the virus’ spread. Hopi officials attribute much of the current surge to the holiday season and travel, and say it could soon overwhelm the limited medical facilities on the reservation. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius spoke with Hopi Vice Chairman Clark Tenakhongva about measures the tribe is taking to tamp down the spread.

The Hopi village of Walpi on First Mesa. The tribe recently reported a COVID-19 testing positivity rate of 27.8%, which is more than double Arizona's rate and higher than record numbers set last year in the U.S. as a whole. Officials also report nearly 150 known cases of COVID in the last two weeks among the 9,000-person tribe.
Credit Wikimedia Commons/Jeff Brunton

Ryan Heinsius: Hopi leaders have extended the tribe’s lockdown order through Feb. 1. What factors went into that decision?

Clark Tenakhongva: The primary factor has been within the last month or so, I don’t think it’s really attributed to not only the Christmas, but we have had other ceremonies that were conducted out here locally in the villages. That brought up the numbers dramatically. And we only have one healthcare facility that’s out here and it’s not a full-fledged hospital. So with that, we know we just don’t have the proper equipment to maintain any of the seriousness of how to take care of patients that may be coming in. And we were even given notice that should Arizona run out of bed space as far as any ICU units that are available, they may be flown out of state. So that’s one of the real reasons why we’re trying to take these precautions here for our Hopi people or the patients that may be utilizing the Hopi Health Care Center.

RH: And Hopi law enforcement is also setting up checkpoints throughout the reservation. What are they trying to accomplish with those?

CT: Those are primarily education for the people to let them know that there is this executive order that’s in place, and to try to limit the travel that a lot of people are doing. And in the executive order it specifically states only essential travel should be going out. Of course, we can’t hold out anyone that’s a private citizen, but yet at the same time we’re also trying to give out information of how serious this COVID issue is, the pandemic is, and that’s why the checkpoints are being conducted.

RH: What do you think, besides travel, is a main factor in this worryingly high rate of cases on Hopi?

CT: I think one of the biggest things that I’m hearing from the public is that it’s been 10 months, and everybody’s, in my opinion, is getting tired of the cabin fever, a lot of people are getting very restless. They want to get out and then they start going around, even throughout the villages, going from one family to the other not knowing that they’re carrying the virus. Starting from Thanksgiving, Christmas and then parties and so forth that had happened during New Year’s, I think those are the ones that are spiking up the numbers.

RH: Are you hopeful that the current vaccination efforts are going to help turn the corner?

CT: I’m being optimistic about it. We’ve done roughly over 800 people that have been vaccinated with the amount of vaccine that’s arrived here on Hopi. And from the resources that are available right now and what will be available this week, we hope get more vaccine this week, continue with the vaccinations. Even some of the school personnel have been vaccinated. I’m hopeful in thinking that if we can get everybody vaccinated and things starting going in control, hopefully in May we will actually see some of the schools getting back into the classroom and students actually graduating from within the facilities with the ceremony and so forth. And also, on the cultural aspect, I hope we start looking at the summer ceremonies as far as this culture, very significant to us, that some of those can be conducted later on in the year.

RH: Well, Mr. Vice Chairman, I really appreciate your time today.

CT: Well, thank you Mr. Heinsius and I hope what we’re trying to address out here is not only a Hopi issue, it’s a global issue.