Extra Morgues Set Up as Virus Continues to Hammer El Paso

A worker takes Covid-19 swabs in for testing at a drive-thru testing location in El Paso, Texas, on Oct. 26, 2020. (Briana Sanchez/The El Paso Times via AP)

(CN) — A surge of coronavirus cases continues to overwhelm the Texas border city of El Paso, with local officials moving to set up additional morgues to handle a rise in deaths.

Local TV station KFOX reported Sunday that El Paso County planned to increase its number of mobile morgue units from four to 10 as the rate of deaths outpaced the county’s ability to investigate each case.

A county spokesperson told Courthouse News that two of the additional morgues were on their way to the city Monday, while there is still no exact timeline on when the others will arrive.

The move comes as nearly half of the region’s available hospital beds are occupied with Covid-19 patients and the seven-day average for new daily cases remains over 1,500. The El Paso area had almost 27,000 active virus cases as of Monday, a record high since the pandemic began.

Meanwhile, a legal fight is playing out over the local government’s move to close or scale back nonessential business for two weeks in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.

A state court judge on Friday upheld a two-week shutdown order from El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego – the county’s top official, not a judicial officer – after a group of restaurants and the state’s Republican attorney general sued to block the order, which also requires most people to stay home except for essential activities.

El Paso District Court Judge William Moody cited local responses to the 1918 Spanish Flu as justification for his ruling.

“Cities like Dallas and San Antonio developed their own unique responses to the deadly flu in the manner their elected, local officials felt was necessary,” Moody said.

Attorneys for the state immediately appealed the ruling and on Sunday expressed fears in court filings that allowing the more expansive restrictions to stand in El Paso could lead to other local governments across the state setting up their own local rules.

“Without swift action by this court or the Texas Supreme Court, other counties may soon follow, precipitating the potential for a collapse of the state’s emergency plan and response by turning a unified strategy into an uncoordinated, disorganized, and conflicting 254-pronged approach that endangers the lives and livelihoods of every Texan,” the attorneys wrote in a brief to the Eighth District Court of Appeals

Though the appeals court has yet to rule on the case, Samaniego said at a county commissioners meeting on Monday that he is “leaning” toward extending the local order when it expires Wednesday night, though he has yet to make a decision.

“We believe it’s on good legal ground,” Samaniego said.

El Paso hospitals have received an influx of state and federal resources in recent weeks, most recently with the announcement that the Defense Department would send three specialized medical teams from the U.S. Air Force to help support local health care workers.

Local officials have tied the surge in virus cases to so-called pandemic fatigue, pointing to continued parties and family gatherings, along with young people in particular not adhering to health precautions like wearing a mask or practicing social distancing.

Last week, El Paso Mayor Dee Margo singled out shopping at big box stores like Walmart and Target as “significantly” contributing to the surge. Margo said his office had asked those stores to take “proactive action” to limit how many people are allowed inside.

Some local officials are now turning their attention to improving communication about the pandemic among harder-to-reach populations.

During Monday’s commissioners meeting, a community engagement expert from the University of Texas at El Paso’s Border Biomedical Research Center outlined an initiative where “promotoras de salud” – or community health workers – are being trained to spread information about the pandemic and safety measures in the more rural border towns that dot the desert region around El Paso.

“The whole element of social gathering is part of familial, cultural norms,” Bibiana Mancera said. “So what we’re trying to do with the promotoras is to engage with the community and to let them know that, at this time, it’s really not safe to gather socially.”

Mancera cited the upcoming holidays and the fact that people could continue gathering in groups despite the virus surge.

“So rather than risk anything, the message to the community is: it’s really not safe right now,” she said.

Samaniego expressed his hope that the promotoras would be able to get the public health message out more effectively to people who aren’t being reached by press conferences, government meetings and the like.

“The blanket approach of information is not working,” he said.

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