El Paso Sags Amid Coronavirus Surge, Averaging More Than A Thousand New Cases Per Day

Nov 16, 2020

This story comes from the KERA news desk.

Texas passed a million confirmed coronavirus cases this week — the most in the United States. Nowhere is the surge more acute than in El Paso. The West Texas city is being hammered by soaring cases and deaths.

At El Paso's Perches Funeral Homes, manager Jorge Ortiz wheeled a body into his chapel. But not for a funeral service.

"The last two weeks, we have received more COVID cases than the past, I would say, months," said Ortiz.

So many bodies have come in, he said he had to create extra space. That meant converting the chapel into a makeshift storage cooler.

"When we hit the peak back in maybe the summer ... that’s nothing compared to what we’re living right now," Ortiz said.

His team is trying to manage this constant flow — and comfort so many families who’ve lost loved ones to the virus.

"They just took them to emergency. They left them there. And next time they saw them was two weeks later when they passed away," said Ortiz. "But they saw them in a coffin. They saw them in the funeral home."

More than 700 El Pasoans have died officially due to COVID-19 complications, though the number is likely much higher with hundreds of deaths still under investigation. County officials brought in four mobile morgues — but that wasn’t enough. They added six more.

As coronavirus numbers climb, state and local leaders have fought over how to respond. El Paso’s top county official ordered a temporary shutdown of nonessential businesses. The state attorney general challenged that order, calling it unnecessary and illegal. A court then blocked the order and a countywide curfew.

El Paso’s mayor has encouraged businesses to stay open.

While leaders clash, some health care workers are still calling for a shutdown. Nurse Ariana Lucio spoke at a bilingual press conference on Friday.

"Of course we also think about businesses," Lucio said, speaking in Spanish. "But what business will there be if there’s no people, if we’re all dying?"

Hospitals are stretched thin. Dozens of ICU patients have been airlifted to other cities in Texas. The state and federal governments sent in extra health care workers and more medical supplies.

University Medical Center of El Paso is one of the region's largest hospitals. Chief medical officer Joel Hendryx estimates that more than 60% of patients at the hospital are there because of COVID-19.

For now, they’ve been able to expand capacity — like setting up medical tents in a parking lot — because of the resources the state sent to El Paso.

"Within El Paso we’ve probably created almost 600 new beds," Hendryx said. But he said he's worried what happens when other communities see a spike in infections.

"That’s why we think it’s very important for El Paso to start blunting this curve and decreasing the amount of infections that are being transmitted," Hendryx said. "We haven’t even gotten to flu season yet which will affect all the nation and in particular Texas, where most of our resources are coming from."

Some state resources are now heading to Lubbock — just the latest hotspot in Texas.

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