El Paso County weighs phased-in return to work

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Three-tiered strategy relies on hygiene inside buildings, gradual return of work force, social distancing and appointments system for general public

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — El Paso County is laying the groundwork for a return to work of 40% of its workforce and safely reopening buildings to the public.

County commissioners on Monday listened to and gave the initial nod to a Reconstitution of Operations Plan (ROOP) that relies on “triggers” such as a decrease in COVID-19 cases for a certain amount of time, and hospitals and intensive care beds not being at capacity.

It also mandates strict and constant hygiene in common areas, the use of masks, social distancing and barriers for employees and screening of members of the public who come into public buildings.

The return to work portion would be phased in. Each county department would call back 25% of its employees and residents could only come into public buildings if they have an appointment, under Phase 1.

If COVID-19 cases drop for 14 days the county will go into Phase 2 of the ROOP and call back 50% of employees currently working from home. The public would still be required to make an appointment to come into government buildings.

Three consecutive weeks of falling COVID-19 cases in the community would trigger Phase 3, in which 75% of county employees would be expected back at their posts, the public would be allowed in without appointments.

County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said the public would still be encouraged to conduct county business through the internet or telephone, and department heads encourage to find ways to allow some employees to continue telecommuting to work.

Commissioners did not establish a date for implementation. Community health triggers are yet to be met.

El Paso City-County Health Authority Dr. Hector Ocranza said the county has recorded 3,911 COVID-19 cases and 102 fatalities so far, with 28 people breathing with the help of ventilators.

He said he’s seeing some positive signs in terms of new cases plateauing, the death rate holding steady at 2.6% and new diagnoses going down to 7.8% of those who are tested.

Still, he cautioned against El Pasoans “letting their guard down” and urged those who appear healthy to protect family members by practicing good hygiene, social distancing and wearing masks in public. Ocaranza said 23% of the new COVID-19 cases diagnosed were asymptomatic patients who can easily infect vulnerable family members — those who are elderly or have underlying health conditions.

“Young people can get sick and bring the virus home and infect everyone in the household,” Ocaranza told commissioners.

Samaniego said the county is working with its employees, municipalities and vendors to prevent a spike in coronavirus cases during 4th of July celebrations and a local election coming up the second week of July.

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