El Paso County judge says new "partial" curfew doesn't conflict with statewide coronavirus orders

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A medical worker wears personal protective equipment while holding a COVID-19 test kit at a testing site at the University of Texas at El Paso on Thursday. The El Paso County judge on Tuesday announced a new "partial" curfew for the hard-hit area. Credit: Joel Angel Juarez for The Texas Tribune

EL PASO — El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego late Tuesday ordered another curfew that he said is within the guidelines established by Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide coronavirus restrictions.

The judge’s order will last through the rest of the Thanksgiving holiday week and comes after a Texas appeals court shot down his October attempt to temporarily shutter nonessential businesses and keep people inside their homes after 10 p.m. Both orders are an effort to help curb the rampant spread of COVID-19 that has been responsible for more than 800 deaths in the border area.

The judge’s order comes the same day city health officials announced El Paso is part of a pilot program to distribute a COVID-19 infusion treatment called bamlanivimab, which is used to treat COVID-19 patients before the disease progresses to the point that a person needs to be hospitalized.

Samaniego’s order mandates a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., but applies to social or recreational gatherings only. It takes effect Wednesday at 12:01 a.m. and also limits gatherings to 10 people. The new order expires Nov. 30.

Samaniego issued the order after he held what he said was a “favorable” discussion with Abbott’s office and a representative from the Texas attorney general’s office.

“I believe that we arrived at the conclusion that I am able to issue an order,” he said during a livestreamed news conference. “It’s a partial curfew, it’s not as rigid as the one before. I need that to be very clear because we are going to talk about the balance between opening safely, but also making sure that our businesses continue to operate.”

The order does not include a ban on nonessential businesses, which was the crux of Abbott’s and the Texas attorney general’s objection to the previous mandate.

Samaniego encouraged home delivery or curbside shopping, but acknowledged that limiting store hours during a busy shopping weekend would likely lead to large groups of people gathering inside. Restaurants in the county are already limited to 50% capacity and offer only take out after 9 p.m.; bars remain closed.

Samaniego’s latest plea came as the county recorded 1,257 new infections Tuesday, bringing the total to nearly 83,000 since the pandemic began.

The disease has overwhelmed hospitals and the county morgue, where jail inmates had to be utilized to help move decedents after the number of fatalities hit double digits several days in a row. Samaniego said that 489 deaths are still under investigation, the county’s hospitalization rate from COVID-19 patients is at 41% and 236 decedents are currently being held in morgues, which include 13 mobile units. The convention center has also been converted to a temporary field hospital to free up space in local facilities.

The latest effort from the county comes as medical officials announced the city will receive 1,000 doses of bamlanivimab, which will be administered to select patients who are at high risk of experiencing serious illness. Bamlanivimab is not a vaccine, but instead a treatment that attaches to COVID-19 and prevents it from attaching to cells, said Dr. Edward Michelson, the chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

The treatment was approved for emergency use just two weeks ago.

“This has been put together very quickly, there are a few pieces we still need to refine, but we didn’t want to wait to bring this to the public,” he said.

Michelson confirmed that one patient in El Paso has already been transferred to the convention center from the hospital for treatment.

The process usually takes about three hours and patients are then sent home to monitor their symptoms and report to doctors about their progress.

But Michelson also cautioned against viewing bamlanivimab as a treatment that could immediately end the pandemic.

“This is not a treatment for everybody who might become infected with COVID-19, but only for specific patients,” he said. “And because of that there is a rigorous screening process that patients will need to go through.”