Hospitals Overwhelmed as Texas Border City Fights Virus Surge

By Travis Bubenik, Courthouse News

As a troubling surge of coronavirus cases and Covid-19 hospitalizations continues to hammer the border city of El Paso, Texas, officials over the weekend delivered an urgent and straightforward plea to residents: stay home for the next two weeks.

The message comes as hospitals in the region have become overwhelmed, prompting officials to set up a new temporary hospital and implement a nightly curfew.

“We’re at a crisis stage,” El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said during a virtual press conference Sunday. “Currently our hospitals are stretched to capacity.”

The El Paso region has in recent weeks become one of the nation’s worst hot spots for the virus, with new daily cases and hospitalization numbers hitting highs the city hasn’t seen since the pandemic began.

One local hospital, University Medical Center of El Paso, said over the weekend it was working to coordinate a “voluntary option” for critically ill patients to be airlifted to other hospitals in Texas. The arrangement, the hospital said, would be offered to all hospitals in the area.

“We’ve already had three patients that are designated to be airlifted out,” Ryan Mielke, a spokesperson for the hospital, said in a brief phone interview Monday morning.

Officials stressed that the new curfew order does not affect voting and polling centers, which remain open with public safety precautions in place.

Local health officials have tied the surge in cases this month to so-called pandemic fatigue, saying the virus has spread because of parties and family gatherings, people not wearing masks in public and even some Covid-positive residents failing to isolate.

In a statement Sunday, El Paso’s public health director Angela Mora warned of a worsening strain on the local health system, pointing to a 300% jump in coronavirus-related hospitalizations in less than three weeks. The number of people hospitalized with Covid-19 in the area had jumped to 853 by Monday.

“If we continue on this trend, we risk detrimental effects to our entire health care system,” Mora said. “For the sake of those hospitalized and the frontline health care workers working tirelessly each day to care for them, we ask you to please stay home for two weeks and eliminate your interactions with those outside your household until we can flatten the curve.”

Forty-one percent of the region’s hospital beds were filled with Covid-19 patients as of Monday, while 180 patients were hospitalized in intensive care units, according to data from local officials.

Samaniego said the county was in the process of securing extra morgue space as funeral homes prepare for a possible surge in deaths.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said Sunday the federal government would send a flurry of resources to the El Paso region later this week. Those resources include two 35-person “disaster medical assistance” teams and another team of trauma and critical care doctors, the governor’s office said.

Before the plea for residents to stay home for two weeks, El Paso area officials had already rolled out a variety of new restrictions on nursing homes, restaurants, sports and outdoor gatherings. The officials on Sunday warned that enforcement of those new rules would be “applied to the fullest” and that people or businesses who don’t comply would face fines.

Under the new curfew order, people could face a $250 fine for refusing to wear masks inside buildings or at outdoor spaces where it’s not possible to keep away from others. Businesses could face a $500 fine if they don’t implement certain health and safety standards.

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