Carol and Larry Miller of Ojo Sarco traveled to Denver on Feb. 29 to attend the memorial service of a friend.
Friends and relatives flew in from all over the country, and the world-- from New York City to Tokyo to attend the service. One hundred and fifty guests stayed in the same hotel in downtown Denver and attended a reception dinner after the memorial. That day, the United States had 68 known cases of COVID-19 and the first death linked to the disease. Most Americans still had no idea how exponentially that number would grow.
The Millers had no idea that the coronavirus was quietly lurking, and that they were about to become part of the expanding statistic.
While concern was increasing, the Millers were heading to Paris just a few days after the service when most information about the virus was confusing at best, and the number of cases remained relatively low.
"We were just hearing about the virus," Carol Miller, a former health planner in Taos County and in Washington, D.C., said. "We Cloroxed everything on the plane, including the seats. And I wore a mask." She was originally going to stay for three weeks and meet up with friends.
"It seemed so normal in Paris," she said, adding that there were few cases when they arrived. A physician friend, prominent in the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, sent updates via text every day regarding the increase in U.S. cases.
Then, another friend in Santa Fe alerted the Millers that the president was closing access to the U.S. from the European Union. A scramble resulted with people trying to reschedule earlier flights home.
"Larry flew out on March 11; I flew out on the 12th," Carol Miller said. She arrived at the airport extra early. "There was no panic at the gate I was at, but there were lines of people trying to change their flights, I would guess there were maybe 800 plus people in a line. Everyone had heard that the president made that statement and people were panicking thinking 'I have to get out right now, or I won't be able to.'"
The president later clarified that U.S. citizens would be able to reenter the country. Throughout her flight home, including going through U.S. Customs in Salt Lake City, Miller changed her mask and gloves. She worried about the screen at customs as travelers now have to bring themselves in by scanning their passport and making selections on a screen that hundreds of other people used. "I didn't have the right gloves [with touchscreen capability]," she said.
"You will never know where you got the virus," said Miller. "There are just so many exposures."
Because they had been traveling, the Millers abided by the recommended 14-day quarantine and then got tested. The first test was at a Department of Health "drive-through" on March 25 at Taos High School, conducted by the New Mexico Department of Health and Scientific Laboratory. "We were expecting we would be clear," Miller said.
They were taken by surprise when two days later, the test results came back positive for the coronavirus. For both of them. Since then, the Millers have been tested four additional times, the latest on Friday, April 24-- all with the same positive results.
"We are going into a different area of testing beyond the nasal swab," Miller said. "Our doctor is going to order both antibodies testing and a more sophisticated test that counts the viral load."
David Morgan, media and social media manager at the New Mexico Department of Health, offered, "As testing capacity has increased, we've made it a priority to start testing asymptomatic New Mexicans." He added, "Anywhere in the world where testing has been done on asymptomatic people has found exactly what we have: people carrying the virus, and feeling fine, yet transmitting it unknowingly to others who aren't necessarily fine themselves."
The Millers remain quarantined as they enter day 50 with no symptoms. "We are hoping to get promoted to social distancing," Carol said. For now they rely on their garden full of home-grown vegetables and friends who drop off other groceries.
They social distance themselves in their own home as there is the potential that they could be reinfecting each other - no hugs, no sharing the couch, only elbow bumps in rare passing. Miller said that they are fortunate to have the space to stay socially distanced.
The length of time in which they have tested positive resulted in their case being presented on the University of New Mexico School of Medicine's Project ECHO ( echo.unm.edu/) on Friday (April 24). "With most of the key experts in the state present," Carol said, "the answer to the question of whether or not we are still contagious was 'we don't know for sure.'"
What about day-to-day emotions? Many would feel beyond frustrated and probably frightened, waiting for a symptom to appear. Miller said that it may sound trite, but she gets up every morning, does yoga, enjoys a healthy breakfast with "wonderful coffee" then goes outside to the gardens. Having been a health professional most of her life, she has also been doing a lot of counseling for other people.
"I have always been a glass half-full type of person," she said.
"Larry and I both realized early on that our job is educating people that being asymptomatic is real," Miller emphasized. "You have no way to know that your body is harboring a violent criminal. I'm not spreading it to anyone; I am not going anywhere until I'm clear."
"The fact is some asymptomatic people do transmit the COVID-19 virus," Morgan said. "However, exactly how much spread occurs in a community from asymptomatic people is not fully understood. We - and by we I mean in this case the global medical community - are still learning about this virus."
He added, "For example, the long-term immunity following COVID-19 infection is not known at this time. Multiple research groups are studying this question. NMDOH is following this research to help guide our plan for antibody testing for immunity checks and to help guide reopening of our communities."
The Millers hope the next round of testing will provide some valuable help with the NMDOH plan.
"While we need to stay within our daily state testing capacity, the Department of Health is committed to testing as many potential patients as possible, with or without symptoms," said Morgan. "We are grateful to our Scientific Lab Division and TriCore for each making the commitment to stay open 24/7 and adding additional rapid testing capacity as fast as possible. We're certain their efforts have already saved lives in our state."
"Please keep yourself and your community safe," Carol Miller said. "We are dealing with a new enemy and still know very little about it. Take all of the steps that will prevent the spread including hand-washing, wearing masks and following all rules for social distancing.
"Please don't assume you and others you know do not have the virus. The numbers of people who have been tested and have no symptoms but are carriers of the virus are staggering," Miller said. "Between 25 and 50 percent of people who have tested positive never had any symptoms; no fever, no cough, no body ache, no nothing."
She concluded by saying, "We will come through this stronger and more united if we all work together to have as few members of our communities affected by this disease."
For detailed information regarding COVID-19, see the New Mexico Department of Health website at cv.nmhealth.org.