The devastating toll of COVID-19 on El Paso illustrates the pandemic’s stark inequalities

Courtesy Image / City of El Paso
Jessica Jimenez, a 33-year-old who has lived in El Paso since she was born, said she has three friends and six relatives who have caught the coronavirus.

She works as a retail manager in a shopping mall in the city, and “when we were told we were going back to work, I purchased life insurance.”

“I know that’s something I should have done sooner, but I’ve never thought about my mortality like this before,” Jimenez said.

Her community has emerged as one of the state’s worst hot spots for the virus, and it’s not the first time El Paso has suffered because of what it is and what it represents.

With an 82% Hispanic population, El Paso was the site of an August 2019 massacre at a busy Walmart by a racist gunman who warned of a “Hispanic invasion” and drove across the state to commit mass murder.

A border town, it has been ground zero for asylum seekers from Central America who are in the Migrant Protection Protocols, a program that has forced many asylum seekers and Cubans to wait just across the border from the city for their immigration hearings in American courts. A migrant detention center in El Paso County also drew repeated protests and became a focal point for critics of the Trump administration’s border policies.

And now the coronavirus is devastating the city, its alarming spread a sign of the outbreak’s inequitable impact on Texans. In the nine months that the virus has been confirmed to be in the state, it has ravaged communities of color. Hispanic Texans make up about 40% of the state’s population and accounted for 55% of its known COVID-19 fatalities as of Nov. 13.

El Paso County has reported over 16,000 new cases in the last two weeks — thousands more than the numbers reported for the much larger counties home to Dallas, Houston and Fort Worth. Across the county, more than 900 residents have died of COVID since the pandemic began, placing El Paso far ahead of the state’s other major urban counties in deaths per 1,000 residents.

El Paso is far from the only predominantly Hispanic area that has been hit hard by the virus. Hidalgo and Cameron counties, both along the state’s southern border, have seen death tolls that rival larger and more urban parts of the state like Dallas and San Antonio.

Residents and community leaders say they’re shaken by the number of people who have fallen ill. They have pleaded for help but have been frustrated by the response so far.

“El Paso isn’t a rich city,” Jiminez said. “We aren’t Dallas, Austin, Houston or San Antonio. We’re like the redheaded stepchild of Texas.”

Gov. Greg Abbott barely mentioned the city in a press conference on the coronavirus Thursday, except when he suggested El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego was not enforcing the limited safety measures Abbott has put in place. Attorney General Ken Paxton went as far as to go to court to stop an order shutting down nonessential businesses that Samaniego, a Democrat, issued late last month. Paxton’s office argued in legal filings that the order oversteps Abbott’s statewide rules on reopenings. A state appeals court blocked the order for a second time last week.

“This is just one more piece of evidence that the state doesn’t care about or appreciate its constituents in this part of Texas,” Samaniego said in a recent interview.

No one knows for certain why the number of cases has climbed so sharply in the El Paso region in recent weeks. Jamboor Vishwanatha, director of the Texas Center for Health Disparities at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, suspected that the region’s overall lack of access to quality health care, high number of essential workers and misinformation about the helpfulness of wearing face masks may have contributed to the spread.

Plus, he added, Texas hasn’t imposed a statewide shutdown. Businesses have been allowed to reopen steadily since late August, and Abbott also ruled out “any more lockdowns.” His office has sent additional state resources — medical personnel, medical equipment, personal protective equipment and mobile testing sites — to both El Paso and Lubbock.

“You have people who have nowhere to go because they don’t have health insurance and also people who are afraid to get tested because of their citizenship status,” Vishwanatha said, noting this is true in El Paso and counties along the U.S.-Mexico border. “Another barrier in those border counties is a mistrust of testing sites or the government.”

In addition, research has found that higher-paid employees are more likely to have the option to work from home, and that Black and Hispanic people are less likely to be able to work remotely. In Texas and across the country, front-line employees like janitors, grocery clerks and transit workers are more likely to be women and people of color, an Associated Press analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data found.

Some elected officials pointed to El Paso’s size and proximity to Mexico and New Mexico as one possible reason for the quick spread of the virus.

“Our community has gone through tragedy after tragedy after tragedy,” said state Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso. “We don’t need political arguments. While these issues are being fought in court, people are dying.”

Local leaders’ frustration is evident in the back-and-forth this week over whether more help is coming from the Texas Army National Guard. In June 2019, Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen held a press conference on the “escalating crisis at the border,” announcing that Abbott was sending 1,000 National Guard troops to aid federal border security efforts.

This month, when local officials pleaded for help from the National Guard, Abbott told them it was available but that officials should use county resources first. After days of confusion, officials confirmed late Friday that 36 National Guard members would be going to El Paso to help with mortuary duties. By then, inmates from the county’s detention facility had been brought in to assist with the overflow of bodies awaiting autopsy, and the county put out an urgent plea for workers to apply for jobs to assist.

“Not only is this assignment physically taxing, but it may be emotionally taxing as well,” a notice from the county said.

The complaints about a lack of attention mirror those made by residents farther south in cities along the Rio Grande Valley during the November 3 election. Local leaders and residents lamented that neither side made much of an intentional effort to court the Hispanic population, which is on track to become the largest group in the state by mid-2021.

“They don’t bother to come here,” Samaniego said of statewide elected officials, including Abbott and Paxton. “I’m the highest elected official in an emergency disaster county. Why is he not having the discussion with me?”

Adrian Montenegro, a 26-year-old who has lived in El Paso since birth, had similar feelings.

“Many of us are frustrated with all levels of government. We do not feel like our lives are valuable in our government’s eyes,” he said. “Aside from political matters, it’s absolutely stressful not knowing if your loved ones are going to be OK when they step out of the house for essential needs.”

The number of cases is expected to grow in the coming days — and likely over the holidays. That’s a daunting thought, given how the city’s emergency rooms have become so crowded that officials have said they’re reaching a “breaking point.”

“We’ve been able to avoid a complete breakdown so far, but the status quo is not working,” Blanco said. “El Paso is hurting. We’re in a state of emergency.”

Some areas outside of El Paso have not reported similar upticks in cases; neighboring Hudspeth, Reeves and Jeff Davis counties have fewer cases per 1,000 residents. Around 14% percent of the new cases identified in Texas in the last two weeks have been in the El Paso region.

In border counties, including Webb, Maverick, Starr and Cameron, there’s a similarly high number of reported cases per capita. In southwest Maverick County, there are more than 4,500 reported cases — about 80 cases per 1,000 people.

Still, El Paso County has reported the most new COVID-19 deaths from mid-October until now.

“My husband and I decided to not see anyone on Thanksgiving. Normally, we go to three homes. This year we’ll be by ourselves,” said Jimenez, the longtime El Pasoan.

“I haven’t eaten inside a restaurant. I try hard not to shop unless it’s for essentials,” she added.

For all the strife El Paso has experienced over the last several years, Montenegro said he doesn’t believe his city has become “immune” to the effects of adversity. If anything, he said, it’s the opposite.

“We are aware of racism and we are aware of poverty, but now we truly know racism and poverty,” Montenegro said. “The shooting was a manifestation of racism, and the ‘effects’ of this pandemic — lack of health care, $7.25 minimum wage, lack of higher education and an inability to work from home — are a manifestation of poverty.

“So, no, I do not think that El Paso is in a better position to deal with a crisis. El Paso is hurting simply because El Paso is the manifestation of a flawed society.”

Mandi Cai, Julián Aguilar, Jolie McCullough and Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Walmart and the University of North Texas Health Science Center have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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