Page Safeway Worker and Mother Are Among Navajos Who Died of COVID-19

Joseph Morton Jr. and Ruby Morton
Joseph Morton Jr. and Ruby Morton Jon Morton
Jon Morton was working his job as a communications technician in Queen Creek on the morning of March 19 when he got the call from a Page police officer.

The officer was with Jon's mother, Ruby Morton. Something had happened and Jon needed to drive up as soon as possible, the officer said. Jon assumed his mother had gotten pulled over. Or maybe she was involved in a small vehicle accident.

What actually happened was unimaginable.

The officer told him that Joseph Morton had died. Jon's mind reeled, but that was the name of both his father and brother. "Junior or senior?" he asked.

"Joseph Ruben Morton," the woman officer told him.

It was the name of Jon's 50-year-old brother, the oldest of the three brothers in the family.

Ruby had found Joseph Morton Jr.'s body in the three-bedroom house they shared in Page. A postmortem exam on Ruby's eldest son, who worked at a Safeway in Page, would later show he was positive for COVID-19. But no one knew that then.

On that terrible day of March 19, with the Page police officer and nieces and nephews in the room, Ruby was too distraught to speak with Jon on the phone.

"She could barely breathe," Jon Morton said. "She couldn’t even talk."

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Jon left work, headed home, and started making plans to head north to Page to make arrangements for his brother. An hour and a half later, he finally reached his mother by phone. But something was wrong. Jon had trouble making out what his mother was saying.

"She could barely breathe," he said. "She couldn’t even talk."

Jon called 911 and reached someone at Maricopa County, who transferred him to someone at Coconino County, who transferred him to someone in Page, who called an ambulance for his mother. The next day, she was flown to Flagstaff Medical Center and intubated. Jon talked to her briefly before the procedure — it was the last time he would ever speak to his mother. He didn't see her, either, because of hospital rules. Ten days later, Ruby Morton died at the hospital of COVID-19. She was 73.

Both Joseph and Ruby had attended the Chilchinbeto Church of the Nazarene Zone Rally on March 7, a yearly event in which dozens of representatives of the church's Western Navajo chapters meet to discuss church business, Jon confirmed. Several attendees besides the Mortons came down sick after the rally, the Navajo Times has reported. As Phoenix New Times and other media have covered, the Navajo Nation, which is the country's largest Indian reservation with about 174,000 residents, has been one of the country's worst-affected areas from COVID-19, with hundreds of known cases and at least 44 deaths.

Back in early March, the state and much of the country were still ignorant of what was about to happen, and why. By the end of that month, Navajo leaders would implement one of the tightest lockdowns in the United States, with weekend curfews in which people are not supposed to leave their property except for groceries or emergencies.

Jon Morton said he knew the novel coronavirus was beginning to look like a serious problem when he canceled a trip to Seattle scheduled for March 6. He and his family decided to go for a road trip closer to home, instead, and he recalls sending text messages back and forth with his brother during the trip. That was when he learned Joe was sick.

Joe was a diabetes patient, Jon said. Apparently, he didn't get the help he needed while sick at home. When Ruby found him on March 19, authorities believe he died the day before.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 99 posted a memorial to Joe Morton on its Facebook page. He was "a loyal and active union member since 1993," and worked a steward to recruit more members, the site says. "Outside of work, he loved to travel and attend baseball games."

"His loss points to the tragic costs of the COVID-19 pandemic and strengthen our resolve to protect other workers from the same fate," wrote Local 99 President Jim McLaughlin.

Ruby Morton was born in Black Mesa in 1947 at her family home, "not in a hospital," Jon Morton said. She was soon "taken away to boarding schools" before moving to Riverside, California, in her early teens. Jon said his mother would later become a licensed professional nurse before moving back to the Navajo Nation after her husband got a job at the Navajo Generating Station coal plant near Page.

An online obituary states that she "graduated in 1967 from the Sherman Institute [where she received her LPN certification], spending summers working in Yosemite National Park ... Ruby was an early volunteer for the groundbreaking American Indian preschool established at the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland." Ruby also volunteered at the Nazarene Church in LeChee, a small Navajo community just south of Page, and taught Sunday school.

"She was a hard worker," said David Morton, Ruby's middle son, who lives in the Phoenix area. "Anytime we had a family gathering, she would always be there working. She would always stay late."

Joe was an ever-positive person who lived for collecting baseball cards and listening to music, David Morton said.

The last time Jon Morton saw his mother was on February 29, when the family had gathered because the elder Joe Morton was in the hospital with abdominal issues unrelated to the virus. The family had to move Joe Morton into a group home last weekend, Jon said, adding that his father was coping with the tragedies as best as possible.

"You never think your family will be affected" by disasters, Jon said. "If the government would have put a better awareness campaign out there, they might have still been around."

"It’s really insulting when people are cavalier about wearing gloves or masks," said Jasmyne Morton, Joseph Jr.'s niece. "I just want to tell them I just lost half my dad’s family."

(Correction: The article originally said Ruby and Joe Morton lived in LeChee; they lived in Page.)
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Steven Hsieh was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from August 2018 to April 2020.
Contact: Steven Hsieh
Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.