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Carol Schumacher

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Carol Schumacher, whose Navajo name is Azdzaa Nizhonii, is a tutor coordinator at Madison West High School. She has lost 26 family members to COVID-19.

For Carol Schumacher, the phone calls from relatives this holiday season won’t be as joyous as in years past. Many will be processing the toll of COVID-19, which has already claimed 26 of her Navajo kin.

“Suffice it to say Christmas isn’t really a holiday of cheer or celebration around the reservation right now, because there’s just too many, too many people being remembered,” she said.

The hospital in Medford, like others, is feeling the strain, with no end in sight.

Schumacher, of Sun Prairie, is in her seventh year as a tutor coordinator at Madison West High School. She grew up in Chilchinbeto, in Navajo County, Arizona, which the U.S. Census lists as having a population of 769.

All of the relatives she’s lost — aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews — were on her mother’s side of the family and lived in or around the Chilchinbeto community. All were blood relatives, except for a nephew’s wife.

Schumacher, 55, lost two brothers to COVID, one who was 56, and one who was 53.

As COVID-19 began its path through the United States in March 2020, the virus ravaged the Navajo Nation, which early in the pandemic had the highest rate of COVID-19 infections per capita in the United States.

The nation is the largest reservation in the United States and includes parts of northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Utah.

Schumacher, whose Navajo name is Azdzaa Nizhonii, said before COVID was identified on the reservation, it spread during a religious event in Chilchinbeto attended by Native American people from all over the area.

“It started from our community,” she said. “Apparently, the pastor who ran the revival and some of the people, they were coughing, but nobody was aware.”

Carol Schumacher

Carol Schumacher said she has tried to compartmentalize the loss of life her family has suffered but in June started having physical manifestations of her sadness.

Schumacher describes reservation life as harsh, with large families living together in small spaces. She came from a family of eight and lived with her parents, four brothers and a sister in a three-bedroom home.

Other families on the reservation had 10-12 people in even smaller homes, she said.

Schumacher said once the virus started spreading, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention got involved and people who got sick had to distance and quarantine.

“And there’s no such thing as quarantining in a home of 12 people. So, that was one of things that just caused it to spread so quickly,” she said.

A hotel 25 miles away in Kayenta was used to quarantine some of her relatives, which Schumacher said was helpful.

Left at 21

Before COVID, she lost two siblings to alcohol and drugs — a younger brother in 2019, and her sister in 2008. She has an older brother left.

Schumacher left the reservation when she was 21 and in 1989 met her husband when the two worked at a lodge in the Grand Canyon. She was a cashier in the cafeteria; he was a front desk clerk who came through her line sometimes. Now he’s an accountant at a law firm in Downtown Madison after a 22-year career at Pepsi.

They moved to Sun Prairie, where he grew up, in 1994, when the oldest of their two daughters was 2 months old.

After her younger sister died of a drug overdose, she took in her sister’s four children, and they became an eight-member family. “It was a big adjustment for them, but we made it work,” she said. “In the Navajo culture, family is very important and we are very close-knit.”

Schumacher said most of her relatives who have died lived in northeastern Arizona, but an aunt, whom she considered a second mother, died in an assisted-living home in Blanding, Utah. An uncle who died lived on the border of Arizona and Utah in Monument Valley.

Most of her family members who succumbed to COVID-19 in the past 20 months died in hospitals that were six or more hours away from home: in Phoenix, Cottonwood and Flagstaff, Arizona, and in Farmington, Albuquerque and Gallup, New Mexico, she said.

Schumacher said the distance made it even more costly when it came to funeral expenses. Many died without services, and in some cases, no proper goodbyes, she said.

Carrie Bohman, a social studies teacher at West, helped Schumacher set up a GoFundMe account, which as of Monday has raised $6,385 of its $20,000 goal to help the Chilchinbeto community fund necessities for those affected by the virus.

“My community and people are scared, suffering and hurting,” Schumacher says on the GoFundMe page.

Best vaccination rates

The Navajo Nation went from having one of the country’s worst early case rates to being credited in September by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease expert, as a model of success.

Last month, the CDC said that Native Americans consistently had the best COVID-19 vaccination rates in the U.S. since the shots became available late last year.

The New York Times reported that tribal leaders pushed hard to vaccinate Native American communities because of the disproportionate toll the virus has taken on their people.

According to the most current figures, the Navajo have a vaccination rate of 70% for those eligible, compared with the most recent national rate of 61%.

As of Dec. 16, the Navajo Department of Health reported 1,570 total COVID-19 deaths. It said there have been 40,659 COVID cases in the Navajo Nation.

In 2010, the total population of Navajo tribal members was 332,129 with 173,667 living within the boundaries of the reservation and 158,462 outside of the reservation.

Schumacher said those on the Navajo reservation were among the first to get the vaccine late last year, and the majority of her family members got their shots right away.

But some of her elderly relatives, who are more traditional, she said, have refused the vaccine because of experiences from their youth. “They distrust the government. So, it’s just rehashing their past lives, what they’ve survived.”

She said some of the older family members she has lost had health problems “that didn’t help their case when they got COVID.”

Last December was particularly hard for Schumacher when the aunts and uncles on her mother’s side and their children all got COVID-19. The majority survived, but she said many of them are dealing with long-term effects of the virus, including breathing issues, heart problems, anxiety and depression.

Because her relatives live in remote areas, they have little access to health care or counseling, Schumacher said, and they are having trouble processing their grief.

She said she has tried to compartmentalize all the loss, but in June started having physical manifestations of her sadness. She’s diabetic and said her blood sugar started reaching dangerous levels. She was getting headaches and having heart pain, so she went to get help.

At the same time, she said she felt guilty knowing how many of her family members could be helped by therapy, but aren’t able to get it.

Schumacher said she remains afraid of getting COVID herself, but she works in a corner of the school with a few students in the study hall area. She said she doesn’t interact or go near students and when they approach her, she makes sure they are wearing a mask as required. She double-masks.

“Now, having to go through this new variant that’s coming out, family members are just beside themselves because of this,” she said.

Fave 5: Restaurant reporter Samara Kalk Derby’s most memorable stories of 2021

“Due to the decisions of your state government (Evers) and your federal government (Biden), The Pine Cone has been forced to close its doors after 40 years. Thanks for all your support,” the sign said.

In a phone conversation, John McKay said the real reason he closed the restaurant was because his lease was up.

“That was just a little frustration. That was a bad decision,” he said about hanging up the handwritten sign. “Got old and got tired.”

That’s because the pandemic hit close to home for them, with a 54-year-old staff member dying of COVID-19 in April 2020.

“We’ve felt this very, very personally,” said Deirdre Garton, who owns Quivey’s Grove, 6261 Nesbitt Road, with Craig Kuenning.

Grace Coffee Co. burst onto the Madison coffee house scene in May 2019 and rapidly expanded to six locations. But behind its stylish veneer were concerns about cut corners, poor management and a significant number of health code violations, including sugar contaminated by wastewater, fly-covered pastries and improperly stored raw meat.

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