As death devastates El Paso, prisoners stem overflow from morgue

El Paso (United States) (AFP) –

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Prisoners in safety gear have been recruited to move bodies from an overcrowded morgue to refrigerated trucks in El Paso -- as one of America's safest cities in more normal times is overwhelmed by death in one of the country's worst Covid-19 outbreaks.

The outbreak is exploding across the United States and almost no corner has been spared, but images of health services at breaking point in the Texan border town have underscored the horror of the crisis.

Inmates in gloves, masks and goggles earn $2 an hour as they transfer bodies into a half dozen big rigs parked outside a medical examiner's office.

"If there's no personnel, no one to help out, and there's volunteers, even if they are inmates, then that's what we're left with," El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego told a local TV station.

The pandemic is wreaking havoc on cities large and small in Texas and across the US but El Paso has been hit particularly hard.

With around 680,000 residents, it is dwarfed by Houston, San Antonio and Dallas and yet one in every six Texans hospitalized by Covid-19 is being treated in El Paso.

The city's 1,050 patients take up about half of beds in the city's packed hospitals.

Coronavirus cases in El Paso County are exploding, increasing a staggering 242 percent in just two months. As of Wednesday it was reporting more than 77,000 cases and 804 deaths.

While medical experts say a Covid-19 test positivity rate -- the proportion of tests that come back positive -- of five percent or higher is alarming, El Paso's is off the charts at 19 percent.

In Texas as a whole it is around 11 percent. Last week the Lone Star State became the first in America to surpass one million coronavirus cases.

Scratch the surface and throughout El Paso, a military city that was deemed one of the safest in America a year ago, has stories of horror and tragedy wreaked by the pandemic.

- Last rights on Zoom -

Last week a man named Tommy Zavala lost his 82-year-old father Tomas to Covid-19. The elder Zavala had suffered from respiratory problems, and he and his wife Guadalupe had given up all social activities months ago. They no longer saw their granddaughter, and went out only to buy groceries or for medical appointments.

"Here's the doctor telling us, 'Your dad had to be intubated. He was unconscious,'" Zavala, a 53-year-old banker, said in a choked-up voice.

"I'm like, 'What are you talking about? He was just fine. Just yesterday, I swear to you,'" he added.

The home of the elder Zavalas is across the street from the hospital where he was admitted. Guadalupe would resort to gazing at it from her living room window because she could not visit him.

The family managed to get a priest into Tomas's room to administer last rites as he lay dying. They watched on Zoom. And they do not know when they can claim his body to hold a funeral.

Then there is Tommy Zavala's wife, Erica Salas, 41, who works in marketing in the health care industry and describes herself as a social butterfly.

She used to think the virus only hit older people or those with pre-existing medical problems -- until it killed a nurse friend of hers who was 39.

"It was my personal eye-opening experience," said Salas.

Then she caught the virus herself.

Now, Salas says she goes beyond the coronavirus restrictions put in place by local authorities and avoids dining at bars and restaurants, for instance.

"Personally, I'm like, 'OK, we did it!' But I am still scared for my fellow mankind."

- No new lockdown -

Some say El Paso needs tougher measures to fight its outbreak, though Texas Governor Greg Abbott is a strong supporter of President Donald Trump, who regularly downplays the pandemic.

"If we don't put stronger restrictions, our healthcare system will not be able to handle the influx of sick patients," said Lizette Torres, a registered nurse and union rep in El Paso.

On Monday evening her union staged a horn-honking demonstration in downtown El Paso to urge people to stay home and avoid infection.

"We should have done stronger restrictions from the beginning. Nothing mediocre, we should have done a full-blown shutdown," said Torres.

Judge Samaniego ordered non-essential businesses in El Paso County to close on October 29, but the state attorney general and restaurant owners sued. And a state appeals court halted the decree.

"We are not going to have any more lockdowns in the state of Texas," Abbott said last week.