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Donald Trump told a campaign rally on Saturday that the US was wasting money on coronavirus tests, claiming mass testing was only inflating the number of cases and fueling a media obsession while, in reality, “you don’t see death”.
But El Paso is seeing too much death right now.
Local funeral director Jorge Ortiz has been forced to put an overflow of bodies into a chapel at one of his six funeral home locations.
“We actually converted one of our chapels into a cooler. We’re not gonna be able to have visitations there any more, said Ortiz, general manager of Perches Funeral Homes in the west Texas city, on the border with Mexico.
He’s handled 290 coronavirus funerals in the city and four out of five families seeking his services this month are mourning the loss of a loved one who succumbed to the virus.
“We know this is real,” Ortiz said. “We face Covid every day.”
El Paso is experiencing its worst surge of the coronavirus outbreak and has become a hotspot not just in Texas, where cases and hospitalizations are rising, but in a country facing record infections.
El Paso county is dealing with 11,000 active cases, almost triple the number of cases it recorded in the previous July-August peak, and reported 1,216 new cases on Saturday, the highest single-day increase the county has seen. More than 850 people are now hospitalized with the virus, straining the local system.
Trump said during last week’s presidential debate: “There was a very big spike in Texas, it’s now gone.”
But even as Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, said on Sunday that the administration was “not going to control the pandemic”, El Paso is rushing to try.
County judge Ricardo Samaniego last week wrote to the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, asking for more assistance, including the use of a local army hospital to treat Covid-19 patients.
And on Sunday evening he imposed a 10pm to 5am curfew and urged county residents to stay home for two weeks.
Samaniego warned residents that those breaking curfew could be fined $500, though the curfew does not apply when going to or from work or out for essential services, including grocery stores and healthcare.
And anyone caught without a mask while unable to remain socially distant in public would face fines up to $250. He also declared that all county hospitals had reached capacity
“We are in a crisis stage,” he said.
Abbott is now sending 460 extra medical personnel to the area and announced that the El Paso convention center will be converted into a makeshift hospital to operate up to 100 beds.
A hospital nurse on the frontline in the city, who asked not to be named publicly in case it risked her job, told the Guardian: “We’ve had no open beds for a couple weeks, and if we do, it’s only for an hour or so before another patient comes in.”
She described a recent tough shift with a man in her care struggling to breathe.
“A patient started declining fast, so we called the ICU doctor who said to intubate. I told him I’d hold his hand the whole time, he never let go, not until we had him completely sedated.”
The man became one of 117 patients on ventilators in the county, a number way above what’s normal there, she said.
“In July, it was busy, but people weren’t as sick when coming in,” she said.
She wants the authorities to “shut the city down”.
Jacob Cintron, CEO of El Paso county hospital district, acknowledged at a press conference last Thursday that: “Our hospitals are filling up, there is no doubt about that.”
Mayor Dee Margo explained on Friday in a phone interview with the Guardian that as long as El Paso continues to meet the demand for hospitalizations, he wouldn’t ask the governor for the necessary authorization to shut the city down.
Margo said: “I think people mostly are suffering from Covid fatigue and they’re letting their guard down.”
He was not talking about tiredness brought on by the virus, but impatience by ostensibly healthy people with having to observe control measures.
As numbers began rising in October, new restrictions were announced, such as restaurants closing at 9pm except for takeout and limiting capacity for other non-essential businesses.
Half of new cases in the October surge involve people under 40, and 22% of people testing positive reported visiting restaurants.
Bars are not technically open, as bars alone, but the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) allows bars to partner with food trucks and operate as restaurants.
“It’s kind of, in my opinion, rigging the system,” Margo said. These pseudo-bar-restaurants have to prove to the TABC that 51% of their revenue is coming from food, not alcohol.
“We’ve heard all kinds of stories of people walking in to buy ‘a beer for a dollar and nachos for $15’,” Margo said and has asked the commission to step up the policing of violations.
Schools and colleges are continuing with remote learning for the time being. But while the mayor banned spectators for outdoor sports, exceptions were made for the El Paso Locomotive pro soccer club and the university football team, with reduced crowds.
Another complicated situation is presented by the southern border on the city’s doorstep and, in normal times, a continuous flow of people and vehicles between El Paso and its Mexican sister city, Juárez, on the other side of the Rio Grande. Margo said 19% of cases in a two-week period had reported cross-border travel.
“The concern is Mexico,” he said. “There are some significant spikes in Juárez, I have been supportive of making sure our bridges are not open to non-essential travel. I think there’s still some of that going on. If you’re a citizen or have a green card, you can go back and forth.”
Border restrictions are always difficult here, depressing business as well as social and humanitarian movement.
Ciudad Juárez last week went into virtual lockdown for two weeks to try to curb infection.
El Paso county’s coronavirus death toll so far is 575, with another 165 deaths listed as “under investigation”.
Hidalgo county, with similar characteristics to El Paso county, but sitting at the eastern end of the Texas-Mexico border, experienced a catastrophic Covid surge in July, where the death toll went from 238 by 11 July to more than 1,000 three weeks later.
Now public health officials are warning it’s El Paso’s turn for a deadly surge, and Margo said: “Unfortunately, I think we are prepared for that.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘We’re in a crisis stage’: Texas border city reels from coronavirus surge