El Paso, Texas, getting crushed by COVID-19 as state surpasses a million cases

By MATT GUTMAN, IGANCIO TORRES, and ASHAN SINGH, ABC News

(EL PASO, Texas) — Charlie Brown had spent years motivating his high school football team as their coach. But when he was diagnosed with the coronavirus last month, it became his family’s turn to provide the encouragement.

“We were all telling him, ‘Just keep fighting.’ And even that morning, I said, ‘You have to pinky-promise me that you will not stop fighting.’ Every time, when we ended a phone call, it was ‘I love you’ and I would throw him kisses,” his wife, Vickie Brown, told ABC News’ chief national correspondent Matt Gutman.

Charlie Brown, who had recently retired from coaching in El Paso, Texas, died on Oct. 17. His wife said he didn’t want to be put on a ventilator and he didn’t want her “to have to make that decision” for him.

“He knew how bad he was,” Vickie Brown said. “His lungs were like concrete. That’s why he kept telling us, ‘I can’t breathe. … It didn’t matter how much oxygen [he was given].”

The former coach is just one of the latest victims of the virus in a city where health officials have described its spread as uncontrollable.

The county has seen record breaking cases, hospitalizations and deaths since cases began rising again in October, and currently has the fourth-highest number of cases in the state, which just became the first to surpass a million confirmed cases.

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego told ABC News that the county had requested 10 refrigerated trucks to hold the bodies of those who’ve died outside of the medical examiner’s office. With hospitals at capacity, he says they may need more.

“How long would it take if we have the same trajectory numbers going. … They’re saying about two weeks,” Samaniego said.

Samaniego says his own friends have died from the virus in the last week and that he has “no clue where the process is” with regard to their funerals.

While Texas has been particularly hard-hit, every state in the country is seeing COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations rising again. At 10.2 million total cases, the U.S. has had more people with COVID-19 than any other nation. On Tuesday, there were 136,325 news cases reported in the U.S., marking a new single day record, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The rising cases have prompted officials from both sides of the aisle to urge safety and implement precautions. In Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert issued a statewide mask mandate after declaring a new state of emergency. Intensive care units in the state are overcrowded. In New York City, Mayor Bill DeBlasio said during a press conference Tuesday that New Yorkers have “one last chance to stop a second wave.”

“If we aren’t able to stop it, there will be clearly lots of consequences that will remind us too much of where we’ve been before,” he said.

In El Paso, however, the surge in cases has been so alarming that the U.S. Air Force has stepped in to help, deploying dozens of medical personnel from around the country. They’re now working out of tents that were once used for disaster relief as well as in a makeshift detention center that had been used to house migrant children, some of whom were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Vanessa Hidalgo, a surgical nurse at the University Medical Center of El Paso, says it hasn’t gotten easier treating those who are sick and that seeing someone die is always hard to bear.

“I think, you know, we’re human. Our emotions get to us. … it’s just hard to see,” she said.

Nearly 93% of those who’ve died from the virus have been Latino, according to the county’s COVID-19 Situational Scorecard.

Christopher Lujan, a funeral director and embalmer at Sunset Funeral Homes, spoke with ABC News in October about the preparations they had made as COVID-19 cases rose throughout the county. At the time, they had turned a storage room into a walk-in refrigerator. It was already full, Lujan said.

At Perches Funeral Home, general manager Jorge Ortiz says they turned a chapel into a cooler and small storage space for caskets. The area that had once been filled with rows of pews had been converted to hold up to 80 bodies. On Tuesday, Ortiz said they had reached capacity.

“We never thought that we would have to expand to a bigger cooler,” Ortiz said.

Like much of the nation, dealing with the virus in El Paso has been a divisive issue among local officials. At the end of October, Judge Samaniego issued an order calling for a shutdown of non-essential businesses for two weeks. In response, El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said he wouldn’t ask local police to enforce the order. The state of Texas is now fighting the proposed lockdown in court.

Samaniego says El Paso has developed a reputation with the state for going its own way.

“They’re not used to El Paso. … We’re so isolated in this area. It’s hard to get the same economic development money. It’s hard to get the same transportation money that the rest of the state gets. … And so this is no different,” Samaniego said. “This is one more step in saying, ‘You shouldn’t have the authority.’”

Meanwhile, thousands of families continue to grieve for the loss of their loved ones. Vickie Brown says she and her late husband “have done everything together” for especially the past five years. She also shared a hopeful message.

“One of the last things that we said in his obituary was, ‘Because of your love dad, we will make it through,’ Vickie Brown said. “And that’s what will get us through.”

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