Dressed in a striped uniform, protected by a mask, gloves and glasses, inmates are busy managing the influx of bodies to the morgue. El Paso, Texas, is drowning in the number of coronavirus cases.
Prisoners are paid $ 2 an hour to move bodies to half a dozen refrigerated trailers, set up outside the El Paso medical examiner’s office when the morgue ran out of space.
“If there are no manpower, no one to help and there are volunteers, even if they are detainees, that’s the only choice we have left,” said a TV station. local a senior official from El Paso County, Ricardo Samaniego.
In two months, the number of cases has increased by 242% in the county, which on Wednesday recorded more than 77,000 cases of Covid-19 and 804 deaths. The city in West Texas is now a hotbed of the epidemic in the United States.
More than 19% of Covid-19 tests are positive in El Paso, against a Texas average of around 11% still above the critical threshold of 10% decreed by Republican Governor Greg Abbott.
And last week, Texas became the first US state to exceed one million positive coronavirus tests since the start of the pandemic.
Tommy Zavala lost his father Tomas last week to Covid-19.
Tomas was 82 and had breathing problems. He and his wife Guadalupe had ended their social activities for several months, no longer seeing their granddaughter and only going out to shop or see the doctor.
“The doctor said to me: Your father must have been intubated, he was unconscious, + I said to him: What do you mean? He was fine again yesterday, ”recalls Tommy, 53, with a tight throat.
Every day, Guadalupe watched the El Paso University Hospital where her husband was interned from her dining room, which overlooks the building. But she was never able to visit him.
The Zavalas managed to send a priest to the hospital room to perform the last rites, which they were able to witness on Zoom.
But they do not yet know when they will collect the body or can organize a funeral.
Tommy Zavala himself tested positive for the virus in October, after his wife Erica suffered symptoms after returning from vacation at a rented house with a few friends.
Erica Salas, 41, who works for a mutual and qualifies as “very sociable”, has fallen from above in recent months.
She who initially thought that the virus only affected the elderly or in poor health had a “revelation” when a nursing friend died of Covid-19 at the age of 39.
Then she caught the virus herself.
Today, Ms. Salas no longer just obeying local restrictions, she “takes precautions” and no longer goes to bars and restaurants, even if they have the right to be open.
“Personally, I survived, but I’m still afraid for my fellow human beings,” she explains.
For nurse Lizette Torres of the Del Sol Medical Center in El Paso, “stricter restrictions” must be put in place, otherwise the “health system will not be able to manage the influx of sick patients”.
His union organized a concert of horns in the city center on Monday evening to urge residents not to go out.
For almost an hour, cars displaying “Stay Home” and “Support the Nurses” signs marched.
“We should have put in place total containment,” said Torres, who describes nurses “anxious”, sometimes “demoralized”. “I can tell you that nurses have times when they break down.”
El Paso hospitals have 1,052 patients with Covid-19 in their departments, which represents 49% of their total capacity.
And there are still 46 beds available in intensive care units in the region.
Senior county official Ricardo Samaniego ordered non-essential businesses to close on Oct. 29, an action immediately challenged by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and a group of successful restaurant owners, overturning the decree.
And Governor Greg Abbott, support of President Donald Trump, who has often minimized the pandemic, assured him: “we will not have a new containment in the state of Texas”.