Positive test results for Marfa police officer show effect of virus on frontline workers

After a surreal and roughly two-week fight with coronavirus, Marfa police lieutenant Gilberto Carrillo returned to work for the Sunday night shift. “I missed being out here,” Carrillo said in an interview — though he does admit that he also enjoyed “my 10 days at the house.” Photo by Stephen Paulsen.

MARFA — In late June, Marfa Police Lieutenant Gilberto Carrillo got a runny nose. There was a testing site in Marfa, and he decided to get tested just to be safe.

The results for that test ultimately came back negative — but a couple days later, he lost his sense of taste and smell. “That’s what started to get my attention,” he said. He drove to El Paso, where he lives part time with his family, and took another test.

What followed was a surreal week-and-a-half for Carrillo. Over the course of about 11 days, he received two more negative test results, developed a fever so bad it left him “soaking wet,” and was diagnosed with pneumonia. He went to the hospital, where doctors took X-rays of his chest and told him to take pneumonia medication.

A couple days later, he went back for a follow-up appointment. After he left, he got a call from an El Paso health worker.

His fourth tests results were in — and he was positive. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I tested negative three times,’” he recalled in a phone interview last week. “And now you’re telling me I’m positive?”

In its twists and turns, Carrillo’s story may be unique. But his situation represents the confusion and worry many Americans are dealing with right now, as even trained medical experts race to understand and treat SARS-CoV-2, a relatively new strain of coronavirus that claimed its first casualty in January.

Almost every week, a new possible symptom seems to emerge, from strokes and “COVID toe” blisters to aftereffects of burning sensations. Even more worryingly, some people spread the disease without ever showing symptoms at all.

Carrillo’s wife has asthma, a risk factor for complications from coronavirus — and yet unlike Carrillo, she never had symptoms despite testing positive. Their son, meanwhile, tested negative and also didn’t experience symptoms.

Then there’s testing, which researchers rely on to understand the scope of the virus but which they admit is far from perfect. Experts peg the average accuracy rate of viral coronavirus testing at around 70%, while others argue there are too many factors to even accurately gauge that.

There are also antibody tests — the ones that use blood to look for virus antibodies rather than mouth or nose swabs to look for the live virus. An antibody test was one of Carrillo’s four tests, and one of his three negatives.

Antibody testing could be far more accurate, with U.K. researchers this month determining that some antibody tests have a 98.6% accuracy rate. But there’s still much to be learned about both tests, including which factors — like the testing method or the duration of an infection — make them more or less effective. In an effort to get more tests to the public, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in March suspended rules that would have put the tests through a lengthy review.

Last but not least, there are the simple facts of who gets sick. Latino people are around four times more likely to be hospitalized for coronavirus than white people, while Black and Native American people are even more likely to be hospitalized.

There are lots of factors behind those numbers, including national economic and health disparities — but it’s also simply a question of who gets put on the front lines. All of the Marfa Police Department is Latino, as are many of the frontline workers at stores like Stripes and the Marfa Porter’s.

“We can do everything by the book,” said Marfa Police Chief Steve Marquez, “but we’re just as vulnerable as everyone else.” He commended Carrillo for how he’d handled his symptoms, saying he “protected everyone in Marfa and protected his teammates” at Marfa PD.

Carrillo’s situation also demonstrates some of the problems Texas has faced in trying to get a handle on surging coronavirus case numbers. Since he has a home in El Paso and was tested there, he says his case was included in El Paso numbers — even though as a part-time resident and full-time employee in Marfa, his infection likely started here.

Likewise, Carrillo was contacted by contact tracers in El Paso. But with those resources overwhelmed and Carrillo having lots of regular contacts as a police officer, that investigation produced no solid leads.

In the end, Carrillo said, contact tracers simply designated his case as “community related.” “We don’t have a way to track it,” he recalled health workers telling him.

Carrillo, for his part, also isn’t sure how he got coronavirus. He normally plays football on the weekends in El Paso, but those games had been canceled due to the pandemic. Work aside, like much of the country, he’d mostly just been staying put.

Carrillo did eat with his family at a BBQ chain in El Paso in June shortly before his runny nose started. But “we were the only ones in the dining area,” he said. And with restaurant staff apparently taking precautions, neither he nor his family members noticed any red flags.

Finally, there was his family’s own restaurant: Doña Lupita Tamales in El Paso. But while Carrillo owns it, his wife mostly runs it, and Carrillo hadn’t been in recently. Besides, he said, the restaurant was only offering take-out. (They ended up temporarily closing altogether after Carrillo’s positive results, as a precaution.)

Running through the options in his mind — and checking his credit card statements to jog his memory — Carrillo could only come up with one possibility. But it’s not much more satisfying than what contact tracers uncovered.

“Maybe it came from a traffic stop,” he said. “That’s what I’m thinking.”

“I’m feeling great now,” said Carrillo, who has apparently made a full recovery. And after hearing horror stories of other people’s battles with coronavirus, he feels lucky to have just had pneumonia and a fever. “I’m glad I didn’t go through the experience that other people did,” he said.

Besides, his quarantine wasn’t so bad. “It sucks to eat without tasting food,” he said, but “other than that, my life was normal.”

“I did enjoy my 10 days in the house,” he added.

Carrillo returned to work at Marfa Police Department with a night shift on Sunday. By Tuesday, he was back to his normal rounds, working during the day.

“I missed being out here,” he said in a follow-up phone call on Tuesday. He felt as healthy as ever. Or as he put it: “Everything’s still the same.”

The coronavirus is impacting the Big Bend in a variety of ways, be it grieving for loved ones, struggling with a lost job or mounting bills, experiencing coronavirus or those like Carrillo who are grappling with uncertainty around tests and contact tracing. Every story is different — and we want to hear yours. If you feel like sharing, you can contact us at editor@bigbendsentinel.com.