The Navajo Nation patrol car pulled up to the jail near the center of town and Officer Carolyn Tallsalt stepped out. She adjusted her surgical mask, pressing the edges so they sealed against her cheeks, then flung open the door to the back seat where there was a woman in handcuffs.
A jail guard proceeded to pepper the woman, arrested for disturbing the peace, with questions.
Have you been in contact with anyone known to have coronavirus? Have you contracted the virus yourself? Do you have a fever or body aches?
“No, no, no,” the mask-less woman mumbled, before coughing twice into the open air. Tallsalt stepped back.
The guard placed a temperature gun to the woman’s forehead — 95.8, a few degrees lower than the average body temperature. Cleared to go inside, the woman walked to the side entrance, escorted by Tallsalt. That routine process, which Tallsalt has performed countless times in a nearly 20-year career, carries a stressful new weight during the COVID-19 outbreak. At the start of each shift, she thinks the same thing: I hope I am not exposed today.
More than a dozen fellow Navajo Nation officers have contracted the virus along with thousands of residents of the sprawling reservation.
“My anxiety is out of control,” Tallsalt, 53, said on a recent afternoon. “You don’t know who has it.”
Since mid-March, when the novel coronavirus began to spread like a brush fire on the dry, remote 27,000-square-mile reservation, daily patrols for the nearly 200 Navajo Nation officers have transformed into an exhausting mix of stress and overwhelming sadness.
Here on the Navajo Nation — spanning portions of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah — nearly everyone knows at least one victim of the deadly virus.