In footage which spread rapidly on social media, nine inmates wearing the striped jumpers of the El Paso county jail helped move bodies into mobile morgues.
“Having to use inmates tells the story of how short-handed 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 west Texas city on the border with Mexico.
The sheriff’s office said the use of the inmates began on 9 November, on a volunteer basis. El Paso county said the inmates were tested and provided with personal protective equipment by the medical examiner’s office, and would face a two-week quarantine once the program was over. They were being paid $2 an hour.
“It was just a temporary focus, and we’re waiting for the Texas national guard to help us out with that,” said Samaniego, in response to outcry 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 the inmates’ work would “end when the national guard arrives”. Samaniego, however, wasn’t sure those troops were coming.
“It has not been confirmed that they would be able to take over 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 in more mobile morgues in recent days, up from six to 10.
Authorities in El Paso fear a dire situation could get much worse. 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 that those patients was coming out of that pit was in a body bag,” she said, referring to the the Covid unit where she was woking. “I am not OK from an emotional mental standpoint.”
Rivers claimed intensive care treatment at University medical center (UMC) was not aggressive enough to save lives.
“This hospital’s policy was they only get three rounds of CPR, which was only six minutes, this out of all the codes we had – there is not a single patient that made it,” Rivers said.
El Paso was her fifth assignment during the pandemic. Close to tears, she said working there had left her more “emotionally scarred” than working in New York, which was the world’s worst hotspot for infections in early spring.
In a statement, UMC said: “After watching the video, while we cannot fully verify the events expressed, we empathize and sympathize with the difficult, physical and emotional toll that this pandemic takes on thousands of healthcare workers here and throughout our country.
“This particular travel nurse was at UMC briefly to help El Paso confront the surge of Covid-19 patients.”
Rivers chose to leave her assignment early and return home to her family.
Behind the numbers lie thousands of names. Jojo Sanchez was one. A 74-year-old former emergency medical technician who became an emergency room technician, he lost his battle with Covid-19 on 12 November at Del Sol medical center, where he had helped so many.
“He watched so many of us grow up and he had a shoebox of photos from people that worked there from way back,” said Barbara Yoon, a co-worker. “He was everyone’s grandfather.”
Sanchez battled Covid-19 for three weeks. His family was not allowed to visit. His friends from the ER stopped by frequently, so he wasn’t alone.
“It is a bittersweet ending to a man that was truly loved,” Yoon said.
It is not known if Sanchez contracted Covid-19 while working in the ER. His wife and granddaughter also tested positive. After a brief stint in hospital, his wife is recovering at home. His granddaughter experienced mild symptoms.
UMC is just a few miles from the state’s border with New Mexico, where the governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, has reimplemented a stay-at-home order. New Mexico has seen just over 70,000 cases since the pandemic began. El Paso county alone has recorded about 7,000 more than that.
Samaniego recently issued a stay-at-home order. It was quickly challenged by the mayor, Dee Margo, who appealed to the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton. The attorney general ruled the shutdown illegal, only for it to be confirmed in state court, then overturned again on appeal. El Pasoans were left confused.
“There were businesses that shut down while others remained open,” said Debbie Mendez, an El Paso mother. “If there is no stability with city officials, the citizens of El Paso will basically do whatever they want and Covid cases will continue to rise.”
One west El Paso gym was among businesses which decided to stay open, even after the state court ruled Samaniego’s stay-at-home order could be enforced by police. In a statement accompanying a fundraising account, the owners of Sun City Athletics claimed to have received two warnings and two citations. Citations are up to $500 each. The GoFundMe amassed 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 faring much worse than Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, the four largest cities in Texas. They have a combined 34,391 active cases among 10.6 million residents. On Wednesday this week, El Paso reported 34,819 active cases among its 840,000 residents.
About 83% of the population of El Paso is Hispanic, a significant amount living in multi-generational households. According to data provided by the public health department, 93% of roughly 77,000 people who have tested positive since March are Hispanic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that Latinos are nearly twice as likely to develop diabetes as white Americans. According to the El Paso health department, diabetes and hypertension are two of the leading underlying conditions present in residents who have tested positive for Covid-19. In El Paso, patients with underlying conditions make up 97% of the death toll.
Sharing the tip of west Texas with the Fort Bliss army base, El Paso is also home to a significant military population. According to the Department of Defense, the base cannot release Covid case numbers due to national security.
But signs point to the outbreak affecting military families. Fort Bliss has announced new guidelines for those on post, including a 10ft social distancing guideline, not 6ft as suggested by the CDC. Furthermore, a second outbreak since March was recently reported at the Ambrosio Guillen Texas State Veterans Home (AGVH), in north-east El Paso.
Two veterans from the home have recently died. One was a famed El Paso author, Leon Metz. The other was Otis Ramey, a beloved husband, father and grandfather. According to Ramey’s granddaughter, the two men were roommates.
The pandemic has halted funerals with military honors.
And at funeral homes across El Paso, social distancing and capacity limits apply. But as the mobile morgues fill up, some families are experiencing a four-week delay before they can even bury their loved ones.