Texas National Guard deployed to help El Paso with morgue overflow

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A health care worker directs a person to use a nasal swab for a self-administered test at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing center at Miami Beach Convention Center Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, in Miami Beach, Fla. (David Santiago/Miami Herald via AP)

Texas National Guard troops have been deployed to El Paso, Texas, to help with morgue operations as the city and county grapple with a COVID-19 surge.

The Texas Division of Emergency Management said in a statement that “after completing an assessment of the situation on the ground in El Paso County this week, the state has mobilized a team of 36 Texas National Guard personnel to provide mortuary affairs support beginning at 0900 tomorrow,” CBS’ El Paso affiliate reported Friday.

The city’s mayor, Dee Margo, said on Twitter Friday that a “rapid increase in cases and hospitalizations” has brought on a “spike in deaths.” The Texas Military will now provide “the critical personnel” to carry out the city’s “fatality management plan.”

El Paso city and county have secured a “central morgue location to further support the Medical Examiner’s Office, funeral homes and mortuaries with additional capacity,” he said.

There are now more than 300 people in an intensive care unit across El Paso County due to COVID-19. Earlier this month, officials said they were bringing in 10 temporary morgue trailers.

So many have died that the county has posted job openings for morgue attendants.

El Paso County was paying prison inmates $2 an hour to move the bodies of deceased COVID victims. Prison labor isn’t unusual, but videos of inmates wearing striped jumpsuits loading plastic-wrapped bodies onto refrigerated trucks sparked concerns about their treatment during the surge in virus cases, especially as outbreaks of COVID-19 in prisons have been a recurring issue throughout the pandemic.

El Paso is just one area being hit hard amid a nationwide virus surge. The U.S. recorded 195,000 new virus cases on Friday, the ninth time this month a record has been set for new confirmed infections in a single day, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. There have been 1,300 deaths a day since Sunday, and hospitalizations topped 82,000 on Friday.

El Paso health officials reported nearly 1,074 new COVID-19 cases and eight deaths on Saturday, bringing the totals to 80,291 cases and 853 fatalities, according to the city and county COVID-19 dashboard.

Intensive care units across the city and county are so overwhelmed with COVID patients that they’re flying the infected to other Texas cities in order to save lives, CBS News correspondent Omar Villafranca reported earlier this week.

Brock Miller, a spokesperson for ambulance airline AirMed International, said 50% of the company’s flights are now related to COVID-19.

Miller told Villafranca he’s never seen anything like it before. “We’ve had SARS, H1N1, but nothing compares to COVID,” he said.

According to the Texas Emergency Task Force, at least 84 patients have used an air ambulance since the pandemic began — all of them from El Paso within the last month.

Other cities in the state currently have the physical capacity to take on El Paso’s overflow, but Austin Mayor Steve Adler told Villafranca on Wednesday that if the numbers of COVID-19 patients continue to rise there’s concern about having enough healthcare workers to care for them.

“We have physical space, but as we learned in June/July, the real threat to us is having people so that our staff’s (not) overwhelmed,” he said.

Adler, however, warned on Friday that the city will also “soon run out of hospital beds” if people do not wear face masks, social distance, and avoid groups and non-essential physical contact. “We have the power to stay under our 200-bed hospital capacity and avoid Stage 5- Red,” he wrote on Twitter. “We have done it before – we can do this again, together.”

More than 250,000 people have died from virus in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged people not to travel for Thanksgiving.

“Gatherings with family and friends who do not live with you can increase the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19 or the flu,” the CDC says. “Travel may increase your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year.”

Nevertheless, an estimated 50 million Americans are expected to travel over the holiday, increasing the country’s risk of more exponential growth in cases, and deaths, heading into winter.

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