The number of COVID-19 cases in El Paso continues to soar. Hospitals are at capacity and some patients are being airlifted to other cities. Over the weekend, the county reported a record-high number of cases.
The situation is so bleak, El Paso’s county judge ordered a two-week shutdown of non-essential services. That shutdown now faces a potential legal challenge from the state.
El Paso’s situation is similar to what happened in another border region, earlier this year. In July, the Rio Grande Valley became a COVID hot spot.
“Our numbers went from 35 patients to six weeks later we had almost 2,000,” Hidalgo County health authority Dr. Ivan Melendez said .
It was a difficult summer. Melendez treated people he had known for years, who could no longer breathe on their own. He lost colleagues to the virus and also got sick.
“So I was very, very, very scared myself,” he said.
At the same time, El Paso wasn’t hit nearly as hard. Both regions are on the border and have similar demographics. Melendez figured maybe El Pasoans have better access to primary care, which would mean fewer untreated, underlying conditions that put people at risk.
But now, El Paso is a hot spot.
Late last week, local health officials painted a grim picture. County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said if something doesn’t change, El Paso will see an unprecedented number of deaths.
“When we start thinking of working with the morgues and coming up with places to store these souls, and we start shipping our patients to other communities, I don’t know what else would say this is the time to do everything we can to help the medical profession,” he said.
Jacob Cintron, head of University Medical Center, said COVID-19 hospitalizations were the highest they’d ever been.
“At some point logically we’re gonna run out of capability,” he said. “Various hospitals have added 60 beds. 80 beds. We’ve added over a hundred beds and are looking to add more.”
That includes overflow tents, set up in hospital parking lots.
Hidalgo County health authority Ivan Melendez has been here and has advice for this border region.
He says it’s important for local leaders to connect early with state and federal agencies that can send in resources, like extra beds for field hospitals and medical personnel.
“Be early in engaging them and be early in planning to bring these people in,” Melendez said.
Healthcare workers and medical equipment have arrived in El Paso from other parts of the state since the COVID surge began.
Melendez also recommends frontline workers take care of themselves. You’ll be fatigued and heartbroken, he said. People you’ve known for years will perish. During all this, it’s important to acknowledge the elephant in the room: anger.
“You will get frustrated and you will get angry because people will not follow the social distancing recommendations and you think to yourself, are the sacrifices that we’re making worth this community that’s not willing to listen, to heed our advice?” Melendez said. “Can it be that people still don’t believe that this exists? Is it possible that people are still politicizing this?”
Melendez said it’s important for frontline healthcare workers to recognize that sense of anger and frustration comes from fear.
“That fear usually is of you dying, your mom dying, your children dying, someone in your community that you’re exposing because you’re at work so much,” he said.
Melendez’s last piece of advice isn’t for right now, when El Paso is in the thick of things, but for once the surge is over. He said it’s critical to prepare for the next wave of the pandemic by improving the baseline health of the community.
“Put money into programs for primary care,” he said. “The programs that will help people control their diabetes better, their hypertension better, their obesity better because those are the comorbidities most associated with death once you get COVID.”
It’s crucial to improve community health, he said, so people have the best possible chance of surviving whatever comes next.
Mallory Falk is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Got a tip? Email Mallory at Mfalk@kera.org. You can follow Mallory on Twitter @MalloryFalk.