FORT APACHE INDIAN RESERVATION (3TV/CBS 5) -- Tribal leaders have approved strict measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 as cases spike in the White Mountain Apache community.

According to Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood, more than 13,000 people call the reservation home, and 1,537 have tested positive for coronavirus.

The number of cases per capita is now outpacing the sprawling Navajo Nation, which has been a COVID-19 hot zone. The Navajo Department of Health reports 7,045 cases out of a population of approximately 173,000, according to 2010 Census data.

The White Mountain Apache tribal community will go on a 57-hour lockdown starting Friday night, followed by a shelter-in-place order. Lee-Gatewood says officials will also work to identify sick people who need to quarantine.

“Our emergency operations center, the incident commander and his team, they do boots on the ground efforts where they go door-to-door through their operations section. They identify people that really need to be quarantined,” says Lee-Gatewood.

Tribal leaders are also prepared to use the police and the courts to force people into quarantine. The council approved converting part of the Hon-Dah casino-hotel into a site for both voluntary and involuntary quarantine.

“They’re going to put safety measures to prevent people from walking out,” says Lee-Gatewood. “The doors will be locked where you can’t leave. Not the hotel doors, of course, but the outside entry.”

Lee-Gatewood says people who are sick and refusing to quarantine will be cited and then court-ordered to stay in a hotel room.

The chairwoman says her community has suffered a lot of heartbreak. So far, 19 people have died from COVID-19, including her mentor Jim Clawson, brother-in-law Oliver Tinker Nez, former council member Wayne Colelay, and respected medicine man Harris Burnette. Lee-Gatewood says the pandemic has taken an emotional toll.

“You no longer can be there with loved ones to mourn with them,” says Lee-Gatewood. “That’s really a struggle. I believe that affects the core of our Apache people because we’re prayerful people.”


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