Stories for Good

Stopping the Spread of COVID-19 in the Navajo Nation

by Amelia Wedemeyer

Walden University graduate Dr. Ulysses Labilles is using his public health knowledge to help an oft-neglected community.

It was while researching and writing his dissertation for his Walden University degree that Dr. Ulysses Labilles learned the importance of genomic epidemiology in infectious diseases. His interest in this area has helped him create an impact in underserved communities through his career with the CDC Foundation, an independent nonprofit that collaborates with private-sector partners and philanthropies to support the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Earning a PhD in Public Health is to be part of aiding and prolonging life, but also part of drafting preventive measures that are less expensive than cures,” Labilles says. “Closing the inequality gap between people and promoting equal opportunities for children and people all ethnicities and genders are the main selling points of earning a PhD in Public Health.”

Labilles explains that once he earned his Walden degree, he knew he wanted to help the Navajo Nation, given that Indigenous Americans are one of the most-ignored populations during public health crises. The Navajo Nation has been one of the areas of the United States hardest hit by COVID-19 because of its limited infrastructure and resources.

The Navajo Nation reservation is the largest in the United States, and 30% of its residents have no tap or toilet in their homes, according to the nonprofit DigDeep. This presents a challenge given that handwashing is critical in preventing the spread of COVID-19. In his first week working with the Navajo Nation, Labilles hit the ground running, with vital tasks that included helping to revise and update community communication strategies regarding how diseases spread.

As a co-lead with Dr. Laura Hammitt of John Hopkins University and the Navajo Epidemiology Center, Labilles drafted the sampling guidelines of the Navajo Nation SARS-CoV-2 Strain Surveillance (NNS3) Project with the goal of using the data collected to enhance testing and contact tracing, increase the pace of vaccination, assess the positive outcome of non-pharmaceutical interventions, and improve targeted resource allocation. Implementing this initiative in March 2021, a year after the Navajo Nation saw its first COVID-19 case, is one of Labilles’ proudest achievements.

“I’m blessed to share this passion with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, scholars, and public health leaders such as Dr. Judy Monroe, president and CEO of the CDC Foundation,” Labilles explains. “It all about the commonality to help to end the pandemic.”

Life’s Balancing Act

For Labilles, obtaining his graduate degree came while juggling a full-time job, being a single father, and maintaining a social life, all the while making sure to pay attention to his mental health. “Graduate school is the rubber ball, and the rest are crystal balls,” he explains. “When you drop a rubber ball, it bounces back and maintains the balance. However, fatherhood, job, health, friendships, and integrity are fragile, and once [a crystal ball] breaks, it shatters into several pieces.”

With Walden University’s online format, Labilles found that juggling these crystal balls was not only achievable, but also something that gave him pride. “I completed my program two years early [from] the anticipated graduation date,” he says, adding, “and being in the honor society put the icing on the cake.”

The Path Forward

The Navajo Nation is beginning to reopen with help from Labilles and his colleagues. At the time of this publication, most businesses are allowed to operate at 50% capacity. It’s an incredible accomplishment, especially considering that the Navajo Nation had the highest per-capita infection rate of COVID-19 in the United States in May 2020.

But his work to combat and understand the virus is not over yet. He’s currently helping Dr. Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer of the Navajo Area Indian Health Services, with a project on post-acute COVID-19 syndrome, which is the umbrella term encapsulating prolonged health abnormalities in people who have been infected with COVID-19.

For Labilles, it’s both humbling and rewarding to see the impact he’s helped create on a vulnerable community. “The most significant takeaway I found from my projects with the Navajo Nation during COVID-19 is [my project’s] contribution in the fight of the pandemic,” he says.