Covid-19 death toll keeps climbing in El Paso as shelter-in-place order is extended

Morgan Chesky and David K. Li and Tim Stelloh
·2 min read

EL PASO, Texas - Another dozen-plus El Paso residents were reported to have died from Covid-19 in one day, officials in far west Texas said on Wednesday, as a contested stay-at-home order was extended until next month.

Since the coronavirus pandemic broke out in March, 696 El Paso residents have succumbed to the virus, according to a public health tally on Wednesday.

That number is up from 682 reported on Tuesday. Wednesday's report also added another 863 cases of Covid-19.

The outbreak has forced officials to order 10 mobile morgues because space at the El Paso County Office of the Medical Examiner is already filled with 90 bodies. There were 154 bodies still in storage as of Tuesday afternoon, officials said.

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego on Wednesday extended an Oct. 29 order closing all non-essential businesses until Dec. 1. A U.S. District Court judge last week upheld the order, but the the state attorney general and local businesses had continued to fight it in court.

Samaniego said the extension came after the Texas Supreme Court denied their request to halt the order. He added that the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals will weigh in this week.

"Every day the stay-at-home order remains in effect is a day we can save lives," he said.

Samaniego pleaded with residents to remain vigilant during Thanksgiving and pointed to earlier holidays when infection rates surged.

He said that businesses should stay shuttered until the county's hospitalization rate falls below 30 percent. As of Wednesday, it was at 51 percent, and the number of people in hospital beds at the University Medical Center El Paso rose by more than 50 percent in a single day, to just over 1,100, he said.

Nearly 300 people were in intensive care, he said.

Earlier, Samaniego said the sight of mobile morgues rolling into El Paso should be enough to convince doubters that action has to be taken.

"In our Hispanic community the burial is such a big part of our life's celebration and to see that we're storing bodies" is a sad state of affairs, Samaniego said.

Representatives for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton could not be immediately reached for comment on Wednesday.

A lawyer for El Paso restaurant owners challenging the county decree said his clients believe the state's orders, allowing eateries to operate at 50-percent capacity, should be observed.

"They're practicing all the right things and doing all the social distancing and everyone is wearing masks," attorney Mark Osborn said Wednesday.

The prevalence of multi-generational homes and early confusion about which businesses were considered essential have made controlling the virus a difficult challenge in El Paso, county officials said.

Morgan Chesky reported from El Paso, David K. Li from New York City and Tim Stelloh from California.