When November started, the United States had just over nine million cases of covid-19. Now, just a few weeks later, the country is reaching 11 million. And a county in western Texas has emerged as the most recent American epicenter.
Almost on the border with Mexico, El Paso is known for its desert landscape, military complexes and abundant sunshine. Now, it is becoming one of the regions most affected by the pandemic in the country.
Patients with covid-19 account for more than half of all hospital admissions in the county, and the case count continues to grow.
The following are five symptoms of the unfolding of this crisis.
With the numbers increasing in the thousands every day in El Paso, some 77,000 people have already been infected. It is almost the same number of confirmed cases in whole countries as Greece or Libya.
The data shows that 1,120 El Paso residents are currently hospitalized with the virus, and that number is expected to increase. This means that one in six covid-19 patients hospitalized in the state of Texas is in this county. To date, a total of 839 people have died.
Health professionals are struggling to cope. A spokesman for the University of El Paso Medical Center said the hospital recognized the “physical and emotional” price the pandemic was causing to the entire team.
As officials rush to catch up with the rapidly increasing number of patients, the convention center in the city of El Paso has recently been transformed into a makeshift hospital to secure some extra beds.
The facilities are so crowded that patients are transported by plane to other cities in the state.
Last Monday, El Paso County judge Ricardo Samaniego said the county had opened an extra 500 hospital beds so far. But with the rate of spread of the virus, these new waves would be full by next week.
Ten mobile morgues
While hospitals deal with many patients, the El Paso morgue cannot keep up with the increasing death toll in the county. As a result, employees are turning to refrigerated trucks and trailers. Ten of these mobile morgues have been ordered in the past few weeks.
The facilities were positioned outside the office of the state health authority. Last week alone, these makeshift morgues received more than 150 bodies.
Earlier this month, the United States Department of Defense sent medical teams to help local health workers.
Even industry companies working in the county are feeling the pressure. Jorge Ortiz, manager of a company in the sector, told the media outlet KERA News that he had to convert his funeral home into a refrigerator. Ortiz noted that the peak of cases recorded in the summer “is nothing compared to what we are experiencing now”.
Inmates help with the bodies
The city continues to face a shortage of officials and authorities have dealt with criticism for asking for help from local prisons.
The prisoners were photographed handling the bodies of the covid-19 victims in the city’s coroner’s office, helping to carry them to the mobile morgues.
A spokesman for the El Paso sheriff’s office said the prisoners were minor offenders and were in minimal security prisons. In addition, they will be compensated for their work at 2 dollars (about 10 reais) per hour.
The decision to participate is voluntary and they all received protective equipment. Even so, the decision shocked many locals.
Ricardo Samaniego, a county judge, considered using people from the prison system as a last resort. “If there is no staff, no one to help, and there are volunteers, even if they are inmates, then that is what remains,” he said, according to KFOX14 News.
The judge added that the authorities were waiting for Texas national guards, but the military did not confirm that they could meet the demand.
Six months, six family members
In the past six months, a woman from El Paso has lost six members of her family to the virus.
Bonnie Soria Najera told Good Morning America that her uncle was the last to die on Sunday. She also had to bury her parents, two aunts and a cousin.
“They were all being very careful,” she said. “They did things they had to do: buy at the supermarket, go to the doctor’s appointment …”
Najera’s mother tested positive for the first time in May. In three days, she was wearing a respirator, she says. Her father soon fell ill with the virus, but ended up in a different hospital.
A week after his mother was hospitalized, news of the death came. An hour later, Najera learned that his father was wearing a respirator. He would pass away three weeks later.
Najera also had covid-19, but eventually recovered. When he started to feel better, he learned that his cousin and aunt had died after contracting the virus. Last week, another aunt also died in the hospital after the infection.
Now she asks Texans to practice social detachment properly, as her family tried to do. “You don’t want to be in our shoes,” she said.
For now, no lockdown in El Paso
Despite the concerns of many residents, there is no blockade in sight for West Texas County.
On Friday, a state appeals court overturned an order to stay at home after local restaurant owners and the state attorney general sued Judge Samaniego for trying to create a lockdown in the city.
A panel of judges decided 2-1 that the order to close non-essential deals by December went against the Texas governor’s reopening orientation, issued on October 7. Some companies resumed operations almost immediately, as reported by local media.
Attorney General Ken Paxton called Judge Samaniego a “tyrant”. The county judge replied that it was “unfortunate” that the attorney general tried to “rejoice instead of coming to El Paso to walk beside me through the mobile morgues”.
Samaniego added that he was disappointed with the decision, but noted that the inhabitants of El Paso must still adhere to certain restrictions regarding the use of masks and agglomerations.