President Donald Trump downplayed the toll of the coronavirus during Thursday’s final debate with Joe Biden, and specifically mentioned tamping down the surge in Texas.
“There was a very big spike in Texas, it’s now gone,” Trump said.
But in the border city of El Paso, COVID-19 is the worst it’s been since the pandemic began.
Health officials in the El Paso-area reported 969 new coronavirus cases Friday, leading to more than 10,000 active cases in the region as figures soared over the past week to record highs. Hospitalizations increased by 107 over Thursday, bringing the total to 678 total, with 195 of those people in intensive care.
At least 571 people in the area have died since the pandemic began.
Local officials have tightened virus restrictions, cutting back capacity at non-essential businesses to 50%, stopping visitations at facilities that care for the elderly, and banning home gatherings — the first major county in Texas to scale back since Gov. Greg Abbott loosened rules in September.
The virus is taking a toll on the mostly Hispanic area in more ways than one, according to Salvador Perches, CEO of Perches Funeral Homes, which does business in El Paso and neighboring Juarez, Mexico. Families are asking for bodies to be transferred across the border as the death tolls rise in the U.S. and Mexico, Perches added, noting that he has added a refrigeration unit inside one of his chapels to accommodate the growing number of bodies.
Over the last two to three weeks, Perches said he has seen an increase in requests for funeral services, not only due to COVID-19 deaths, but also untreated health conditions and suicides because of depression from isolation and job loss.
“People can’t celebrate their loves ones, we can’t mourn,” Perches said.
Dr. Hector Ocaranza, the city and county health authority, called the situation critical. An additional 500 medical personnel plus medical equipment sent by Abbott helps, but he said it is necessary for El Paso residents to “realize we are in a dire situation” and take personal responsibility to stop the spread.
“The spike in El Paso has continued,” Ocaranza said, noting that other Texas metropolitan areas aren’t seeing the same surge. “El Paso, we are in a different situation and we continue to see the rise.”
El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said because the county is isolated from other metropolitan areas, it is easy for the rest of the Texas to be blind to El Paso. He added that they have reached out to neighboring cities in Texas and New Mexico in addition to coordinating with the Mexican embassy and Juarez mayor Armando Cabada, who recently tested positive for COVID-19, to mitigate the spread together.
Samaniego said he will work with state leaders to revisit increasing restrictions in the county in two weeks if the latest restrictions don’t help as much as they hope.
COVID-19’s resurgence throughout the U.S. is again pushing some hospitals to the limit, and the nation is approaching a record for the number of new daily coronavirus cases. The seven-day rolling average for new daily COVID-19 cases in the U.S. surpassed 61,140 Thursday, compared with 44,647 two weeks ago. The record was reached July 22 when the rolling average was 67,293 in the midst of a summer outbreak driven largely by surges of the virus in Florida, Arizona, California and Texas.
More than 17,000 people have died in Texas since the start of the pandemic.
Cecilia Sobalvarro, 57, lives in El Paso and said it was difficult for her to not be with her brother and nephews when her sister-in-law died of cancer on Monday.
“Us not being able to be there for her and to say goodbye over the phone, it is heart-wrenching and it takes a toll on you because we want to be there for her,” Sobalvarro added. “But of course we couldn’t.”