As what has been called a “tsunami of COVID” strikes Hidalgo County in Texas, 45-year-old Juan Lopez proceeds from death to death in his black Cadillac Escalade.
The proprietor of Elite Transportation and Cleanup, Lopez has the contract with the county, the police, and the various funeral homes to collect the dead. He spent the past 14 years handling deaths of seemingly all varieties, “suicides, homicides, everything.” The majority now are the result of COVID-19.
When the county reports that 150 have succumbed to the virus, that is also the number of bodies Lopez has transported. More and more, the victims are dying suddenly at home. Lopez then arrives at the doorstep in a mask and a white Tyvek suit.
“They look at me like, ‘Why are you dressed like that?’” he told The Daily Beast. “Everybody else is dressing normal and I look like an astronaut.”
He explains his presence and offers condolences through his mask to any family members who are there.
“I just present myself, ‘My name Juan Lopez. I work for the county. I am here to pick up your loved one. I am sorry for your loss,’” he said. “You need to treat people with respect because they just lost somebody. You need to treat people with compassion. You can’t just go in and say, ‘I come for the body.’”
Lopez was seeking to console the daughter of a man who died at home on Friday when she told him her mother had died of COVID-19 at a local hospital the day before. Lopez realized he had already transported the daughter’s other parent.
The daughter, who appeared to be in her 20s, told Lopez that her father had applied for a loan to pay for her mother’s interment. The father was waiting for the approval when he himself abruptly died.
“She told me, ‘We were just getting money for my mother’s burial and now we don’t have money for my dad,’” Lopez recalled.
She had taken a blood test for antibodies and it had been negative. But those tests are notoriously inaccurate and she was uncertain whether she had also been infected.
Lopez took all possible care not to become infected himself as he began a ritual with which he has had too much practice. He wrapped the father in a white sheet and placed him in a body bag. The big challenge was getting the body on the stretcher, but then it was relatively easy wheeling it out to the Escalade. He then transported the father just as he had the mother and 37 other COVID victims in that two-day period.
The victims earlier in the week included a couple who had been fatally infected by what a county health officer describes only as “their child.” The county has tallied 113 “clusters” where people were infected by other members of their own family.
Lest his own family join that list, Lopez has a routine upon arriving home that begins with him stripping naked in the garage. He stays in the shower for at least 10 minutes.
“A lot of soap,” he noted.
In fresh clothes, he then can join his four kids, a 26-year-old daughter, a 7-year-old son, and 5-year-old twin girls. They are the reason he does the work in the first place, earning pickup by pickup enough to house and feed them, and give them whatever else they need.
“They’re my life,” he said. “My kids are my life. My kids, they deserve everything.”
He is always just a phone call away from the next job, necessarily keeping the same hours as death.
“I’m 24/7,” he said.
He grabs what sleep he can, two or maybe four hours if he is lucky, and he is back to work, driving body after body through the county, as many as 22 in a day. He figures it may be more in the days ahead. He will have a body in the back and see people still going about without masks and ignoring social distancing.
“People are stubborn,” he said. “They don’t care.”
Early on in the pandemic, he had often heard people say the danger was exaggerated, that doctors were just looking to make money.
“I said, ‘No, people are dying,’” he recalled.
Too many people remained in denial, still unwilling to do what we all need to do to control the virus. Never mind that as many as 1,224 people in Hidalgo County—which encompasses the border city of McAllen—had tested positive in a single day, a considerably higher per capita rate of infection than the current one-day records for Texas and even Florida. Texas’ hasty opening up has transformed Hidalgo County from a model of COVID-19 containment into an epicenter of infection and death. Even the county’s top public health doctor tested positive in late June.
Lopez most often works alone, but any police officers at the scene can be counted upon to help him get the body onto the stretcher. The result is a comradeship, a kind of body bond.
So Lopez was jolted on Saturday in the midst of his latest job when he got word that two McAllen police officers had been murdered. A domestic violence suspect had ambushed them and then killed himself.
Shock became grief when another phone call informed Lopez that he would be picking up the bodies of Police Officer Edelmiro Garza and Police Officer Ismael Chavez at the hospital.
“It broke my heart when they told me the names,” he recalled. “They were good friends of mine.”
Lopez had gone to high school with Garza and was buddies with both men. The two had helped him with COVID-19 victims and he had last seen them just a few days before. Other cops who had bonded with him in the dead zone were now calling him.
“Everybody was calling me, ‘Juan, where are you Juan? Juan, hurry up, hurry up!’” he remembered.
Lopez completed the removal of a coronavirus victim from her home as quickly as decency allowed and headed to the hospital. A procession of more than 50 police vehicles escorted the slain officers as Lopez transported them in the Escalade from the hospital to the county morgue.
He was then left with the task of transporting the body of the gunman.
“I was a little angry because they were my friends,” Lopez said.
After four hours’ sleep, he was back out in the streets on Sunday, collecting more virus victims. He had another one to pick up Monday morning.
“I have three more waiting,” he reported. “And it’s only 10 a.m.”
Lopez had a sometime partner, Elizandro Flores, with him and they had transported five bodies by late Monday afternoon.
At that point, the latest Hidalgo County statistics were not yet in, but County Judge Richard Cortez told The Daily Beast he expects them to be discouragingly big. He said the testing on Sunday was complicated because Hidalgo was also a hot spot in the most literal sense. A thermometer at the outdoor testing site registered the ground temperature at 141 degrees.
At a press conference, Cortez did as all elected officials should do in a pandemic: He deferred to an actual medical authority. Lead county public health physician Dr. Ivan Melendez stepped up to the podium. He himself tested positive in June. His private patients include the couple who died after being infected by their child. Melendez now noted to the press that the percentage of positive results in the testing had risen in recent days from 5 percent to 8 percent to 13 percent.
“If we were doing social distancing, if we were following instructions, we would not see a continued increase in percent positive cases,” Melendez said. “My opinion is people are not paying attention. Even if my opinion had no meaning, the numbers don’t lie.”
As evening approached, Lopez got a call informing him that there would be another procession from the hospital to the morgue. He would be transporting the body of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
“COVID,” Lopez said.
Got a tip? Send it to The Daily Beast here