In images that quickly spread to social media, nine inmates wearing the striped jerseys of the El Paso County Jail helped moving bodies to mobile morgues.
“Having to use prisoners tells the story of how short we must 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 city of Texas on the border with Mexico
The sheriff’s office said the inmates’ use began Nov.9, on a voluntary basis. El Paso County said the medical examiner’s office tested inmates and provided them with personal protective equipment, and they would face a two-week quarantine after the program ends. They were paid $ 2 an hour.
“It was just a temporary approach, and we are waiting for the Texas National Guard to help us with that,” Samaniego said, in response to protests on social media over the use of inmates rather than trained medical professionals.
A spokeswoman for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office told The Guardian that the inmates’ work “would end when the national guard arrived.” Samaniego, however, was not sure those troops would come.
“It has not been confirmed that they can handle the demand that we have at this time,” he said.
The El Paso County Public Health Department has confirmed more than 800 deaths since March. Another 400 are under investigation. El Paso has called more mobile morgues in recent days, from six to ten.
El Paso authorities fear a desperate situation could get worse. The 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 dire situation.
“The only way those patients came out of that well was in a body bag,” he said, referring to the Covid unit where he was working. “I’m not okay from a mental emotional point of view.”
Rivers claimed that intensive care treatment at the University Medical Center (UMC) was not aggressive enough to save lives.
“The policy of this hospital was that they only received three rounds of CPR, which was only six minutes, this of all the codes we had: there is not a single patient who has achieved it,” Rivers said.
El Paso was his fifth assignment during the pandemic. On the verge of tears, she said working there had left her more “emotionally scarred” than working in New York, which was the worst place in the world for infections in early spring.
In a statement, UMC said: “After watching the video, while we cannot fully verify the facts expressed, we empathize and sympathize with the harsh physical and emotional cost that this pandemic has on thousands of health workers here and throughout our country.
“This particular travel nurse was at UMC briefly to help El Paso cope with the surge in Covid-19 patients.”
Rivers decided to leave his assignment early and return home to his family.
Behind the numbers are thousands of names. Jojo Sánchez was one. Former 74-year-old emergency medical technician turned emergency room technician, lost his battle with Covid-19 on November 12 at Del Sol Medical Center, where he had helped so many.
“He watched a lot of us grow up and had a shoebox with pictures of people who worked there for a long time,” said Barbara Yoon, a co-worker. “He was everyone’s grandfather.”
Sánchez fought Covid-19 for three weeks. His family was not allowed to visit. His friends from the ER were often there, so he was not alone.
“It’s a bittersweet ending for a man who was truly loved,” Yoon said.
It is not known if Sánchez contracted Covid-19 while working in the emergency room. His wife and granddaughter also tested positive. After a brief stay in the hospital, his wife is recovering at home. His granddaughter experienced mild symptoms.
UMC is just a few miles from the state line with New Mexico, where Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has re-implemented a stay-at-home order. New Mexico has seen just over 70,000 cases since the pandemic began. El Paso County alone has logged about 7,000 more than that.
Samaniego recently issued a stay-at-home order. He was quickly challenged by the Mayor, Dee Margo, who appealed to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. The attorney general ruled the shutdown was illegal, only to have it confirmed in state court and then overturned again on appeal. The people of El Paso were confused.
“There were businesses that closed while others stayed open,” said Debbie Méndez, an El Paso mother. “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 increase.”
A gym west of El Paso was among the businesses that decided to stay open, even after the state court ruled that police could enforce the stay-at-Samaniego order. In a statement accompanying a fundraising account, Sun City Athletics owners claimed to have received two warnings and two subpoenas. Citations cost up to $ 500 each. GoFundMe accumulated more than $ 4,000 in less than two days. After the appeals court struck down the order, the gym said it would refund all donations.
El Paso is doing far worse than Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, the four largest cities in Texas. They have 34,391 active cases combined among 10.6 million residents. As of Wednesday this week, El Paso reported 34,819 active cases among its 840,000 residents.
Approximately 83% of El Paso’s population is Hispanic, a significant number living in multigenerational households. According to data provided by the public health department, 93% of the approximately 77,000 people who have tested positive since March are Hispanic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have reported that Latinos are almost twice as likely to develop diabetes as white Americans. According to the El Paso health department, diabetes and hypertension are two of the main underlying conditions present in residents who tested positive for Covid-19. In El Paso, patients with underlying diseases account for 97% of the death toll.
Sharing the tip of West Texas with the Fort Bliss military base, El Paso is also home to a significant military population. According to the Department of Defense, the base is unable to disclose Covid case numbers due to national security.
But signs point to the outbreak affecting military families. Fort Bliss has announced new guidelines for those in office, including a 10-foot social distancing guideline, not 6 feet as suggested by the CDC. In addition, a second outbreak since March was recently reported at the Ambrosio Guillén State Veterans Home of Texas (AGVH) in northeast El Paso.
Two veterans of the house have recently died. One was the famous El Paso author, Leon Metz. The other was Otis Ramey, a loving husband, father, and grandfather. According to Ramey’s granddaughter, the two men were roommates.
The pandemic has stopped funerals with military honors.
And at El Paso funeral homes, capacity limits and social distancing apply. But as mobile morgues fill up, some families are experiencing a four-week delay before they can bury their loved ones.
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.