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The People vs. the Pandemic: Addiction

Fellowship Story Showcase

The People vs. the Pandemic: Addiction

Monday, August 24, 2020

The Howard Johnson on the west side of Gallup, New Mexico has quirky, bold metal statues in its lobby. Pre-pandemic the imitation Game of Thrones’ Iron Throne and the creepy life-size alien creature from Predator might have been a tourist draw. The hotel is located on Historic Route 66 after all. But during our visit in mid-July, the hotel was eerily still. The free breakfast bar was closed until further notice. The People’s Court played softly on the lobby television for no one. Instead of being occupied with families passing through, the rooms were being used to isolate coronavirus positive patients. This is where we met Gerald Chee.

Chee is by no means shy. At all. For our series on coronavirus and the Navajo Nation, my team and I had a tough time getting people to go on-camera and tell us their story. Many we approached felt uneasy. They feared there was a stigma attached to catching the virus that rocked the reservation. At one point, the Navajo Nation had the highest rate of coronavirus cases per capita even topping New York City.   

But this 38-year-old was willing to tell us his story “social-distance” style. He wore a mask. Photojournalist Jonathan Dineyazhe, fellow reporter Nathan O’Neal and I all wore them too. We also donned purple gloves and yellow smocks. Out of an abundance of caution, we sanitized repeatedly and spoke with Chee while we stayed in the hallway. 

 “I was just drinking with all sorts of people around town and that's how I got it,” said Chee of catching COVID-19. He identifies as Navajo from south Gallup. “The people I was drinking with, they say they got it, they got over it they said. But there was different people coming over every day, but I don't know who exactly had it.” 

Room 2109 at the “HoJo” became his home for a couple weeks as he recovered in isolation. Except for cable television, there were no distractions like on the outside. He didn’t mind the solitude. Chee recounted his battle with alcoholism.  I wondered if I felt his pain more deeply because the mask made it impossible for us to look anywhere but straight into his eyes. A world of pain was evident. 

“People start getting mad at me. You’re drinking too much, you're doing this too much, that's when I start thinking, like saying to myself I need some help man,” he said.

Dr. Samuel Hatfield brokered the interview with Chee for us. He’s a young doctor who recently finished up his residency program in Texas. The fresh-faced doc, with a neat haircut and chest tattoo peeking out from his button-up, makes humanitarian medicine look hip. He’s one of the doctors leading the HEAL Initiative here by the University of California, San Francisco. Overflow patients from the Navajo Nation, like Chee, are brought to Gallup hotels to recover from coronavirus in isolation. It’s meant to keep the virus from spreading to their respective communities and multi-generational homes. In addition to recovering from the virus, Dr. Hatfield says many patients are using their stay as an opportunity to become sober. 

“We're discovering even as the coronavirus numbers are going down, there’s still a need for this program in terms of housing,” Dr Hatfeild said. “We've been able to get a lot of folks into rehab programs through this program so there's definitely a huge benefit.”

He said nearly thirty people have decided to stay on long-term at the hotels until they’re moved into a rehab facility. 

The issue of alcoholism isn’t new to this region. Health officials say it’s an epidemic that they’ve been dealing with here for decades and may have made the spread of Covid worse. Several homeless camps with shattered booze bottles are easily found across the city.  

"People are walking around in the streets, they're not social distancing, they're not wearing masks, they're sharing alcohol with each other, they're shaking hands and it just exploded the amount of people getting Covid,’ said Dr. Kevin Foley. He’s the Executive Director of Na’Nizhoozhi Center Inc. Detox Center, aka NCI, in Gallup. Na’Nizhoozhi means “bridge” in Navajo. His center is known by many as “the bridge to recovery”. 

Dr. Foley has the institutional knowledge of alcoholism in these parts. He says most of the people who end up in his center to sober up nightly are members of nearby Navajo communities. He’s been the director for decades and has been a fierce opponent for more resources to help bridge the gap in health disparities and inequities for Native Americans which have been amplified by covid. 

"You can see the statistics are all over the place with how diabetes, heart disease are affecting native americans disproportionately,” he said. "There's actually over 30 percent of Navajos that have never touched alcohol in their entire life."

But the reason for treatment is clear.  New Mexico Department of Health officials say Native Americans had the highest alcohol-related deaths over a five year period (2014-2018). The epicenter? McKinley County. Gallup which lies in the county bills itself as “The Most Patriotic Small City in the USA”. That’s the message on roadside billboards that thousands of motorists pass by everyday. But years ago, the city was trying to combat a negative label tied to its high rate of alcohol deaths: Drunk Town, USA.   

"It's very rewarding when people get sober,” Dr. Foley said while giving us a mini-tour of the 150 bed facility. He says the place can easily reach 200 plus people during certain times of the year. But he says resources in the area are slim. NCI had to shut down temporarily in April at the height of the pandemic. 

"A lot of my staff were afraid. Some of them did get Covid. Some of them quit. Some of them had to go into 14-day quarantine themselves." 

Months later, Dr. Foley says there's been a shift with more people wearing masks around the city now.  But he worries about a possible second wave of the virus in the colder months which could put a huge drain on existing resources.

"There's always a need here there's an extreme need actually,” he said.

 We were there for one of the last encounters between Chee and Dr. Hatfield. After clearing Chee of being contagious, Dr. Hatfield expressed encouragement at his patients willingness to put down the bottle. 

“I really appreciate what you’re doing trying to kick the alcohol,” said Dr. Hatfield.

“Yeah, I want to get rid of that, been doing it too long,” Chee replied.  

In the Navajo way of life there is the ideology of "hózhó which roughly translates to harmony and balance. It’s a state many of the people strive to live by.  Chee wants that moving forward.  

"I'm tired of drinking, I've been drinking for a long time, and I just want to sober up and change my life, you know,” he said.

[This story was originally broadcast on KOB4 in Albuquerque and published at]