El Paso health officials announced an all-time high of 838 new COVID-19 cases Friday, topping the previous record of 717 new cases seen only the day before.
“We’re seeing the spread of the virus that is out of control, and we need to help everybody to be able to slow down and control the spread,” City/County Health Authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza said Friday during a virtual news conference. “Otherwise, we’re going to continue seeing larger numbers and we’re going to be seeing our health care resources to be stretched and put into stress.”
According to city-county public health data, on Friday 423 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19, including 112 in intensive care and 48 on ventilators.
Data showed 27% of El Paso County hospitalizations were due to COVID-19.
There have been 554 coronavirus deaths, but no new death was reported Friday.
However, Ocaranza said an increase in fatalities is anticipated. Confirming coronavirus-related fatalities is a “labor intensive process,” he said.
He said determining whether a death is COVID-19 related requires health personnel to analyze available data, including death certificates and documentation from medical personnel and primary care physicians.
“So, we are expecting that we’re going to see an increase in the fatalities, and we’re going to continue to report those confirmed deaths in a timely manner, so we have all the elements that we need to complete those investigations,” he said.
El Paso COVID-19 restrictions
On Thursday morning, Mayor Dee Margo announced that at 12:01 a.m. Friday, occupancy at nonessential businesses would be limited to 50%, down from 75%.
After 9 p.m., restaurants will be limited to take-out and drive-thru service. Bars remain closed in El Paso County after County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, noting the high rate of coronavirus cases in the community, opted out of allowing them to reopen.
Indoor sports were suspended and spectators for outdoor sports will not be allowed. However, the restrictions do not apply to professional or college sports, such as the Locomotive FC or the University of Texas at El Paso.
Ocaranza said, with the new directives in place, he hopes to see the current surge plateau, then decrease.
“We are hoping that it will, but usually we expect to see any changes within one incubation period, which is the 14 days,” he said.
Officials have blamed COVID fatigue for people dropping their guard, leading to the spike in cases.
They also said people, primarily COVID-19 positive or high-risk contacts, are not answering their phones when contact tracers try to reach them. Officials said “City of El Paso” and the phone number 915-212-6520 will show on the caller ID.
After two phone call attempts over two days, a team consisting of a health educator and a police officer will visit the home and health orders may be issued. People who violate the rules can be fined $500.
Officials acknowledged the frustrations felt by residents over long lines at testing sites and phone calls that go unanswered.
“Don’t give up,” Fire Chief Mario D’Agostino, who serves as the city’s emergency management director, said Friday. “Get yourself tested.”
He said local officials have increased phone staffing and are implementing a new program that will allow people to register for appointments online.
He also said additional teams are being assembled to help with testing.
El Paso Public Health Department Director Angela Mora said it’s not the virus that is out of control.
“We are a little bit out of control because we are letting our guard down,” she said. “We are not protecting ourselves as we did in the beginning.”
She said people need to use face coverings, wash their hands and observe social distancing to stem the pandemic until a vaccine is available.
“We need the help of the community,” she said, adding an increase in testing capabilities should be seen by the end of the month.
She said an education task force Friday deployed seven teams to ZIP codes that are considered hot spots.
They are 79936, 79938, 79928 and 79903.
She said the teams eventually will visit all the ZIP codes in the area.
She said they will observe businesses to see whether they are following the rules and talk to managers if restrictions are being broken.
Team members will go over preventive measures with managers and report their observations, which could lead to more citations, she said.