TUBA CITY, Arizona (AP) — The virus arrived on the Navajo reservation in early March, when late winter winds were still blowing off the mesas and temperatures at dawn were often barely above freezing.
It was carried in from Tucson, doctors say, by a man who had been to a basketball tournament and made the long drive back to a small town in the Navajo highlands. There, believers were preparing to gather in a small, metal-walled church with a battered white bell and crosses on the window.
On a dirt road at the edge of the town, a hand-painted sign with red letters points the way: "Chilchinbeto Church of the Nazarene."
From that church, Covid-19 took hold on the Navajo Nation, hopscotching across families and clans and churches and towns, and leaving the reservation with some of the highest infection rates in the United States.
Crowding, tradition and medical disparities have tangled together on the tribe's land — an area nearly three times the size of Massachusetts — creating a virological catastrophe.
And the most basic measures to fight the virus’ spread — handwashing and isolation — can be difficult.
One-third of the homes across the vast, dry reservation do not have running water, forcing families to haul it in. Many in close-knit Navajo communities live in crowded houses where self-quarantine is impossible, and many must drive hours to the nearest grocery store. To most Navajo, isolating an infected person from their family is deeply alien.
The Chilchinbeto meeting, which brought people together from across the region, included everything from discussions of church finances to a joyful meal of roast beef. They prayed for strength in the face of the new virus, which seemed like a distant worry.
But it was already in their midst.
"We're such a small town. We're so remote, "said Evelyna Cleveland-Gray, a Chilchinbeto official who struggled to keep residents from panicking as the virus ripped through the town of about 500, killing more than a dozen people. "We never thought it would hit us."
By now, the loss is felt across the Navajo Nation.
With roughly 175,000 people on the reservation, which straddles Arizona, New Mexico and a small corner of Utah, the Navajo Nation has seen 3,122 cases — a rate of nearly 18 cases per 1,000 people, or 1.8%. At least 100 people have died.
If the Navajo Nation were its own state, it would have the second-highest per-capita rate of confirmed positive coronavirus cases in the country, behind only New York. In the states it spans, the number of cases and deaths among people who are Native American, on and off the reservations, is disproportionately high.
There was the beloved 42-year-old high school basketball coach who left behind five children. There was the carpenter who lived with his brother and died on Easter morning at age 34. There was the 28-year-old mother who competed in Native American pageants.
And on the far western side of the reservation, there's the extended Dinehdeal family who live in a cluster of prefabricated houses and mobile homes in Tuba City. A dog on a long chain lies in the driveway, sleeping in the soft red dirt that sweeps across the landscape. Another runs in circles waiting for someone, anyone, to throw a ball. Pickup trucks, some in various states of dismemberment, are scattered across the property.
This is where generations of Dinehdeal children have ridden their bikes and played basketball against a weathered plywood backboard. It's where the men have tinkered with those pickups and where the entire family — the tight-knit web of parents, aunts, uncles and cousins raised like siblings — have gathered for potluck meals, birthday parties and holiday celebrations. It's where relatives from out of town have always been welcomed.