In November 2020, a surge of COVID-19 cases overwhelmed the health care system in El Paso. Patients had to be evacuated to hospitals in other Texas cities and the bodies of coronavirus victims began stacking up. By November 21, El Paso had 80,291 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 853 fatalities. That day alone, there were 1,074 new confirmed cases and eight deaths. That week, El Paso reported 34,819 active cases among its 840,000 residents, while Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin reported 34,391 active cases among their 10.4 million residents.
The situation grew so dire that, on November 9, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office asked its jail prisoners to volunteer to shift bodies to morgue trailers. Initially, there were no takers but an offer of $2 an hour to perform the perilous work enticed at least nine prisoners to step forward.
Such things cannot be kept quiet indefinitely and, after a video of nine prisoners in striped jail jumpers moving bodies hit social media, the county started backpedaling. The sheriff’s office insisted that the prisoners were “paid volunteers” (albeit at the substandard wage of $2 an hour), were given personal protective equipment and would be quarantined for two weeks when the job was done.
“Having to use inmates tells the story of how short-handed we must be,” said El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego in response to the social media backlash. “It was just a temporary focus, and we’re waiting for the Texas National Guard to help us out on that.”
By then, prisoners had been moving bodies for nearly two weeks and Samaniego admitted that he had no confirmation the National Guard would help out. The next day, the Texas Division of Emergency Management confirmed that, “after completing an assessment of the situation on the ground in El Paso County,” the state had “mobilized a team of 36 Texas National Guard personnel to provide mortuary affairs support.”
The spike in coronavirus cases appears to have been driven by mixed messages from government leaders and the relaxing of social distancing. Prior to the surge, there were media reports of city residents gathering mask-less for family social events and without distancing. At the start of the surge, Samaniego issued a stay-at-home order that was quickly challenged by El Paso Mayor Dee Margo.
Margo filed a lawsuit and appealed to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is awaiting trial on felony securities fraud charges. Paxton ruled the order illegal. The state court held it was permissible, but an appellate court later overturned that decision.
Without clear guidance from any branch of state government, many El Pasoans simply did what they wanted to do. The consequences to a population that is 83% Hispanic and has a large number of multi-generational households were devastating. The strong cultural pressure to attend family gatherings led to 93% of the roughly 80,000 COVID-19 positive cases being Hispanic.
Compared to Whites, Hispanics have double the incidence of diabetes and hypertension, two of the underlying conditions most strongly correlated with severe COVID-19. Hispanics accounted for 97% of the El Paso coronavirus deaths.
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