Virus pushes twin cities El Paso and Juarez to the brink

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Jakaya Lewis, left, waits in line with her mother Trina Ayers to get tested for COVID-19 at an urgent care clinic in Newark, N.J., Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. Gov. Phil Murphy has once again signed an executive order to extend New Jersey's public health emergency, citing a steep increase in coronavirus cases in recent days. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

AUSTIN, Texas – A record surge in coronavirus cases is pushing hospitals to the brink in the border cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, confronting health officials in Texas and Mexico with twin disasters in the tightly knit metropolitan area of 3 million people.

Health officials are blaming the spike on family gatherings, multiple generations living in the same household and younger people going out to shop or conduct business.

The crisis — part of a deadly comeback by the virus across nearly the entire U.S. — has created one of the most desperate hot spots in North America and underscored how intricately connected the two cities are economically, geographically and culturally, with lots of people routinely going back and forth across the border to shop or visit with family.

“We are like Siamese cities,” said Juarez resident Roberto Melgoza Ramos, whose son recovered from a bout of COVID-19 after taking a cocktail of homemade remedies and prescription drugs. “You can’t cut El Paso without cutting Juarez, and you can’t cut Juarez without cutting El Paso.”

In other developments Tuesday, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, banned indoor dining and drinking in Chicago in one of the biggest retreats yet in the face of the latest surge. And Wisconsin’s governor pleaded with residents to voluntarily stay home as the state shattered records for daily cases and deaths. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers issued a stay-at-home order in March, but the conservative-leaning state Supreme Court struck it down two months later.

In El Paso, authorities have instructed residents to stay home for two weeks and imposed a 10 p.m. curfew, and they are setting up dozens of hospital beds at a convention center.

Also, the University Medical Center of El Paso erected heated isolation tents to treat coronavirus patients. As of Tuesday, Ryan Mielke, director of public affairs, said the hospital had 195 COVID-19 patients, compared with fewer than three dozen less than a month ago, and “it continues to grow by the day, by the hour.”

In Juarez, the Mexican government is sending mobile hospitals, ventilators and doctors, nurses and respiratory specialists. A hospital is being set up inside the gymnasium of the local university to help with the overflow.