El Paso officials ask residents to stay home for two weeks as COVID-19 hospitalizations surge

A sanitizing station is set up at the entrance of the emergency room at the El Paso Children's Hospital on Friday. Credit: Joel Angel Juarez for The Texas Tribune

As El Paso continues to grapple with a surge of coronavirus cases, health authorities in the border city on Sunday asked residents to stay home for the next two weeks in an effort to stop the spread of the virus.

“With the surge of hospitalizations, we need the public to understand the strain our local health services and hospitals are currently going through,” said Angela Mora, the director of the El Paso Public Health Department, in a news release.

For the past few weeks, the city has seen a record-breaking number of coronavirus cases. COVID-related hospitalizations in the area spiked from 259 to 786 in less than three weeks — a 300% increase — Mora said in the news release. Over the past 14 days, El Paso County has seen more than 10,800 cases, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Sunday’s stay-at-home request from city officials came nine days ahead of Election Day and as El Paso follows a statewide trend of record turnout during early voting.

“Of course, we encourage everybody to go and vote,” Mora said during a virtual media availability with reporters on Sunday afternoon.

In addition to the presidential race, El Paso voters are deciding whether to send back to city hall Mayor Dee Margo, a former Republican state representative who, in addition to the pandemic, has overseen the city’s reaction and response to the migrant border crisis and the 2019 Walmart shooting. An alleged white supremacist has been charged in the murder of 23 people there.

Margo faces a challenge from his predecessor, Oscar Leeser, and two native El Pasoans considered representative of the more progressive faction of city politics, attorney Veronica Carbajal and former city planner Carlos Gallinar. Two other candidates are also in the race.

Mora said during the media availability that a health education task force had been deployed to voting sites in the area “just to remind the community of what they need to do to stay safe,” such as wearing a mask and sanitizing their hands.

The COVID trends in El Paso prompted officials earlier this month to increase restrictions for restaurants and some businesses, which included scaling back nonessential businesses to 50% capacity and limiting outdoor gathering to 10 people or fewer.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office has in recent days also deployed medical personnel and equipment to the region. On Sunday, Abbott’s office announced that the state would establish an alternate care site at the El Paso Convention and Performing Arts Center this week to provide additional hospital beds and medical equipment. Later Sunday, Abbott’s office said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services planned to send medical assistance teams to the region this week.

In response to the spike in cases, area hospitals announced Saturday they were making preparations to airlift patients to other hospitals to free up bed space in their facility, local media reported.

Margo and Abbott have also said in recent days they have asked the Department of Defense to use William Beaumont Army Medical Center to serve non-COVID patients at its facility. El Paso is home to the Fort Bliss Army base.

As of Sunday afternoon, the request from the city was still pending.

Editor's note: Cassandra Pollock reported from Austin and Julián Aguilar reported from El Paso.