In footage that quickly spread on social media, nine inmates carrying the striped jumpers in El Paso County Jail helped move bodies in mobile mornings.
“Having to use inmates tells the story of how short-handed we should be,” El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego told local media as he struggled to cope with the rising tide of Covid-19 in the western Texas city on the border with Mexico.
The sheriff’s office said the use of the inmates began on Nov. 9 on a voluntary basis. El Paso County said the inmates were tested and provided with personal protective equipment by the doctor’s office and would face a two-week quarantine once the program was completed. They were paid $ 2 an hour.
“It was just a temporary focus and we are waiting for the National Guard in Texas to help us with that,” Samaniego said, in response to revolts on social media over the use of inmates rather than trained medical professionals.
A spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office in El Paso told the Guardian that the work of the inmates would “cease when the National Guard arrives”. Samaniego, however, was not sure that these troops were coming.
“It is not confirmed that they would be able to take over the claim we have at this time,” he said.
El Paso County Public Health Department has confirmed more than 800 deaths since March. Another 400 are under investigation. El Paso has convened several mobile mornings in recent days, up from six to 10.
Authorities in El Paso fear that a serious situation could get much worse. Facilities are overwhelmed: 1,100 people are hospitalized with Covid-19.
In an emotional, nearly hour-long video on Facebook, Lawanna Rivers, a nurse who came to Texas to help, described the serious situation.
“The only way these patients came out of that box was in a body bag,” she said, referring to the Covid device where she woke up. “I’m not OK from an emotional mental point of view.”
Rivers argued that intensive care at University Medical Center (UMC) was not aggressive enough to save lives.
“This hospital’s policy was that they only got three rounds of CPR, which was only six minutes, this out of all the codes we had – there is not a single patient who managed it,” Rivers said.
El Paso was her fifth task during the pandemic. Close to tears, she said, working that had left her more “emotionally scarred” than working in New York, which was the world’s worst hotspot for infections in early spring.
In a statement, UMC said: “After watching the video, while we can not fully confirm the events expressed, we sympathize with and sympathize with the difficult, physical and emotional toll that this pandemic is taking on thousands of healthcare workers here and in our whole country.
“This particular travel nurse was briefly at UMC to help El Paso confront the increase in Covid-19 patients.”
Rivers chose to leave his assignment early and return home to his family.
Behind the numbers are thousands of names. Jojo Sanchez was one. A 74-year-old former emergency medical technician who became an emergency room technician lost his battle with Covid-19 on Nov. 12 at Del Sol Medical Center, where he had helped so many.
“He saw so many of us grow up, and he had a shoebox with photos of people working there from way back,” said Barbara Yoon, a colleague. “He was everyone’s grandfather.”
Sanchez fought Covid-19 for three weeks. His family was not allowed to visit. His friends from ER often came by, so he was not alone.
“It’s a bittersweet ending to a man who was truly loved,” Yoon said.
It is not known if Sanchez got Covid-19 while working in the ER. His wife and grandson also tested positive. After a short period in the hospital, his wife is recovering. His grandson experienced mild symptoms.
The UMC is just a few miles from the state border with New Mexico, where Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has reinstated an order to stay home. New Mexico has seen just over 70,000 cases since the pandemic began. El Paso County alone has registered about 7,000 more than that.
Samaniego recently issued a home order. It was quickly challenged by Mayor Dee Margo, who appealed to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. The attorney general ruled that the shutdown was illegal, only to be confirmed in state court, and then overturned again on appeal. El Pasoans was confused.
“There were companies that shut down while others remained open,” said Debbie Mendez, a mother from El Paso. “If there is no stability with city officials, the citizens of El Paso will basically do what they want and Covid cases will continue to rise.”
One West El Paso gym was among companies that decided to stay open even after the state court ruled that Samaniego’s home order could be enforced by police. In a statement accompanying a fundraising account, the owners of Sun City Athletics claimed to have received two warnings and two quotes. Quotes are up to $ 500 each. GoFundMe raised more than $ 4,000 in less than two days. After the appellate court rejected the ruling, the gym said it would refund all donations.
El Paso is much worse off than Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, the four largest cities in Texas. They have a total of 34,391 active cases among 10.6 million inhabitants. On Wednesday this week, El Paso reported 34,819 active cases among its 840,000 residents.
About 83% of the population of El Paso is Hispanic, a significant amount live in multigenerational households. According to data from the Public Health Department, 93% of approximately 77,000 people who have tested positive since March are Spanish-speaking.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that Latinos are almost twice as likely to develop diabetes as white Americans. According to the El Paso Department of Health, diabetes and hypertension are two of the leading underlying conditions present in residents who have tested positive for Covid-19. In El Paso, patients with underlying conditions account for 97% of the deaths.
The division of the tip of western Texas with the Fort Bliss Army, El Paso is also home to a significant military population. According to the Department of Defense, the base is unable to release Covid case numbers due to national security.
But signs point to the outbreak affecting military families. Fort Bliss has announced new guidelines for those who are on post, including a 10ft social distance guideline, not 6ft as proposed by the CDC. In addition, another outbreak since March was recently reported at the Ambrosio Guillen Texas State Veterans Home (AGVH) in northeast El Paso.
Two veterans from the home have recently died. One was a famous El Paso writer, Leon Metz. The other was Otis Ramey, a beloved husband, father, and grandfather. According to Ramey’s grandson, the two men were roommates.
The pandemic has stopped funerals with military honors.
And at cemeteries across El Paso, social distance and capacity limits apply. But as mobile mornings fill up, some families experience a four-week delay before they can even bury their loved ones.