Officials worry Thanksgiving, Black Friday gatherings will add to El Paso’s COVID-19 woes

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Coronavirus patients taking up most hospital beds in El Paso County public and private hospitals

EMS workers pick up a suspected COVID-19 positive patient in the Rio Grande Historic District of El Paso, Texas on November 15, 2020. – The US surpassed 11 million coronavirus cases Sunday, adding one million new cases in less than a week, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. (Photo by Justin HAMEL / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN HAMEL/AFP via Getty Images)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Hospitals, funeral homes and morgues in El Paso County are reaching capacity due to COVID-19, and officials worry things will get worse as the holiday and shopping seasons approach.

Coronavirus-related fatalities in El Paso reached 769 with Monday’s reporting of seven new deaths and 1,550 new cases. A total of 1,111 residents are hospitalized due to COVID-19, with 300 of them in intensive care and 199 on ventilators.

“We’ve got high COVID numbers, we’ve got capacity at our hospitals, we have a huge challenge in our management of fatalities, the flu coming up and we’ve got Thanksgiving and Black Friday coming up,” said County Judge Ricardo Samaniego. “Obviously, that is really concerning. The trajectory does not look good.”

Samaniego said 52% of all beds in private and public hospitals are occupied by COVID-19 patients and that space remains a concern despite efforts to add beds and the establishing of a mobile field hospital at the El Paso Convention Center.

“I understand 550-plus additional spaces that have been created at (University Medical Center), private hospitals, the tents by the Convention Center. (But) that 52% includes all these extra spaces that have been formulated so we can address COVID cases,” he said.

The surge in coronavirus-related deaths in the past three weeks led the county Medical Examiner’s Office to set up emergency mobile morgues. The number of refrigerated units outside the ME’s Office is expected to reach 10 by this week.

At Monday’s County Commissioner’s Court meeting, Samaniego said his office is reviewing legal options after the Eight District Court of Appeals stopped him from closing non-essential businesses through the end of the month.

He said he’ll respect the appeals court decision but emphasized that his “Work Safe” order remains in effect albeit without the closing of businesses.

That means he expects all businesses to operate at 50% capacity or less, restaurants to close by 9 p.m. but for deliveries and takeout orders and people not to gather in groups of 10 or more.

“We do need people to understand limited mobility. Try not to go to other areas, not going to Mexico if not necessary. If we don’t do the right thing, our businesses will shut down due to the collapse of our health care system,” he said. “There’s a legal perspective and a moral perspective. We’re pleading for our community to do the right thing.”

Juarez, Mexico reports 36 new COVID-19 fatalities

Samaniego’s comment about El Paso residents not making unnecessary trips to next-door Juarez, Mexico, is based on facts.

Juarez on Monday reported 36 new COVID-19 fatalities to bring its total to 1,699 during the pandemic. The Mexican border city also reported 143 new cases, but officials on both sides of the border have said reports of coronavirus infections in Mexico are probably much lower than reality. For the most part, you only get tested in Juarez when you show up at a hospital sick.

Dr. Arturo Valenzuela, Chihuahua State Health Department director in Juarez, said hospitals there are at 91 percent capacity and that the COVID-19 positive rate is 78%. That means that 78 out of 100 people tested turn up to have COVID-19.

Like El Paso, Juarez is operating at least one mobile morgue — the backlog isn’t as severe as El Paso because Juarez buries or cremates its dead within two or three days.

Valenzuela said he’s confident the COVID-19 curve is trending down due to an overnight curfew and two consecutive weekend shut-downs of non-essential activity. In addition, the state legislature just approved fines of $22 for people who don’t wear face masks in public and jail time of up to 12 hours for those who outright refuse, even when given a mask for free.

However, on Monday it wasn’t clear if Juarez police would be enforcing the state mandate.

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