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Texas deployed its National Guard to help with overflowing morgues in El Paso as the coronavirus death toll rises

Business Insider logo Business Insider 2 days ago mmcfalljohnsen@businessinsider.com (Morgan McFall-Johnsen)
a man standing in front of a truck: El Paso County detention inmates, Sheriff officers, and morgue staff move bodies to refrigerated trailers outside the Medical Examiner's Office, November 14, 2020. Ivan Pierre Aguirre/Reuters © Ivan Pierre Aguirre/Reuters El Paso County detention inmates, Sheriff officers, and morgue staff move bodies to refrigerated trailers outside the Medical Examiner's Office, November 14, 2020. Ivan Pierre Aguirre/Reuters

El Paso's morgues are so overwhelmed from an influx of coronavirus deaths that Texas is sending in its National Guard to help process bodies.

"As we've seen a rapid increase in cases and hospitalizations, we are unfortunately also seeing a spike in deaths," El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said in a statement. "The Texas Military will provide us with the critical personnel to carry out our fatality management plan and we are very grateful to them for their ongoing support."

The 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.

The county is also hiring temporary morgue attendants at $27.20 per hour.

Between its main morgue and nine refrigerated trailers, El Paso County was holding 234 deaths as of Friday, County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said in a letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott after the National Guard announcement. Local broadcast station KFOX14 published the letter online.

"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 9 o'clock tomorrow (Saturday) morning," Seth Christensen, spokesperson for the Texas Division of Emergency Management, said in a statement to the El Paso Times.

a truck is parked on the side of a building: Bodies wrapped in plastic line the walls inside a refrigerated trailer used as a mobile morgue by the El Paso County Medical Examiner's office in El Paso, Texas on November 13, 2020. Justin Hamel/AFP via Getty Images © Provided by Business Insider Bodies wrapped in plastic line the walls inside a refrigerated trailer used as a mobile morgue by the El Paso County Medical Examiner's office in El Paso, Texas on November 13, 2020. Justin Hamel/AFP via Getty Images

Samaniego said 45% of all hospital patients in the county were related to COVID-19, and nearly 18% of coronavirus tests were coming back positive.


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He also requested permission to enact a curfew order that was previously struck down by an appeals court.

"With the upcoming Holiday season I am concerned that without some additional measures, we will continue in a downward spiral," he wrote.

El Paso County has been paying prison inmates $2 per hour to move the bodies of dead coronavirus victims, CBS News reported in mid-November.

A nationwide surge like nothing we've seen before

Across the US, coronavirus cases have skyrocketed since the beginning of October.

"I am tremendously concerned," Megan Ranney, an emergency-medicine physician at Brown University, told Business Insider earlier this month. She said she expects this surge to be the deadliest yet. 

 

"The other surges were very localized," Ranney said. "This is different because it is truly nationwide."

With hospitals already being pushed to their limits, public-health experts are advising people to forgo Thanksgiving gatherings and not to travel across the country. If you do gather with family members, experts suggest keeping the group small, wearing masks when not eating, and staying outside if you can. Inside, they say, ensure proper ventilation with open windows or HEPA filters.

Aria Bendix and Yuqing Liu contributed reporting.

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