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As COVID-19 Cases Soar, El Paso Convention Center Becomes Hospital


Texas recently became the first state in the U.S. to reach more than one million COVID-19 cases. And while the numbers are climbing throughout the state, nowhere has been hit quite as hard as El Paso, which is averaging more than a thousand new cases per day. So many people are sick, the city's convention center has been converted into a field hospital. Mallory Falk from member station KERA has more.


MALLORY FALK, BYLINE: Funeral home manager Jorge Ortiz wheels a body to his chapel, but not for a funeral service. The chapel's been converted into a storage cooler. Ortiz runs Perches Funeral Homes. So many bodies have come in, he had to create extra space.

JORGE ORTIZ: The last two weeks, we have received more COVID cases than the past - I would say months. I mean, when we hit the peak back in maybe the summer, but that's nothing compared to what we're living right now.

FALK: His team is trying to manage this constant flow and comfort so many families who've lost loved ones to the virus.

ORTIZ: They just took them to emergency. They left them there. And next time they saw them was two weeks later, when they passed away. They saw them in a coffin. They saw them in a funeral home.

FALK: More than 700 El Pasoans have officially died due to COVID complications, though the number is likely much higher, with hundreds of deaths still under investigation. County officials brought in four mobile morgues, but that wasn't enough. They added six more.

As coronavirus numbers climb, state and local leaders have fought over how to respond. El Paso's top county official ordered a temporary shutdown of non-essential businesses. The state attorney general challenged that order, calling it unnecessary and illegal. A court then blocked the order and a county-wide curfew. And El Paso's mayor has encouraged businesses to stay open. While leaders clash, some health care workers are still calling for a shutdown.

ARIANA LUCIO: (Speaking Spanish).

FALK: Nurse Ariana Lucio spoke at a bilingual press conference on Friday.

LUCIO: (Speaking Spanish).

FALK: "Of course, we also think about businesses," she said. "But what business will there be if there's no people, if we're all dying?"

Hospitals are stretched thin. Dozens of ICU patients have been airlifted to other cities in Texas. The state and federal governments sent in extra health care workers and more medical supplies.

JOEL HENDRIX: So within El Paso, we've probably created almost 600 new beds.

FALK: Joel Hendrix is chief medical officer at University Medical Center, one of the region's largest. He estimates more than 60% of patients at his hospital are there because of COVID. For now, they've been able to expand, like setting up medical tents in a parking lot because of the resources the state sent to El Paso. But he's worried what happens when other communities see a spike in infections.

HENDRIX: And that's why we think it's very important for El Paso to start blunting this curve and decreasing the amount of infections that are being transmitted. If we can do that, then they won't end up in our hospital because they won't need that care. So, yes, we are concerned. And certainly, we haven't even gotten to flu season yet, which will affect all of - all the nation, and in particular Texas, where most of our resources are coming from.

FALK: Some state resources are now going to Lubbock, just the latest hotspot in Texas.

For NPR News, I'm Mallory Falk in El Paso.

(SOUNDBITE OF TULPA'S "PRETTY THINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mallory Falk was WWNO's first Education Reporter. Her four-part series on school closures received an Edward R. Murrow award. Prior to joining WWNO, Mallory worked as Communications Director for the youth leadership non-profit Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools. She fell in love with audio storytelling as a Middlebury College Narrative Journalism Fellow and studied radio production at the Transom Story Workshop.
Mallory Falk
Mallory Falk covers El Paso and the border for the Texas news hub, the prototype for NPR's new system of regional journalism hubs. Previously she worked as a reporter at KRWG in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and WWNO, New Orleans Public Radio. Her reporting has aired nationally on programs including Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Here & Now. A winner of multiple regional Edward R. Murrow awards, Mallory is based in El Paso, and is part of the national Report for America project, which aims to support journalists in underserved areas of America.