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As El Paso sees record-high coronavirus infections, leaders say residents aren’t taking pandemic seriously enough

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A medical worker wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) registers people waiting in line to get tested for COVID-19 at a testing site at Memorial Park Aquatic Facility in El Paso on July, 16, 2020. Credit: Joel Angel Juarez for The Texas Tribune

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EL PASO — El Paso-area officials are growing tired of playing nice. After countless press conferences, public services announcements and personal pleadings from health officials to take the novel coronavirus more seriously, cases are skyrocketing in this part of West Texas.

The city reported 523 cases Thursday, a record high since the pandemic first arrived in the borderland in March. (The case count for all of neighboring New Mexico was 387 Thursday.) That was followed by 418 new cases reported in El Paso on Friday.

Leaders’ frustrations are compounded by residents' lack of cooperation with contact tracers trying to figure out who and what are contributing to the problem so they can better prepare as the flu and holiday seasons approach.

“They either don’t answer the phone, they hang up on us, or they tell us bluntly they are not interested in following any quarantine orders [or] isolation orders,” said Angela Mora, the director of the El Paso’s Public Health Department.

An added hurdle for the health officials is that private labs sometimes report results to the individual before contacting the local government. “They need to call, to let us know they have the positive results and receive instructions from us,” she said.

Mora, who was appointed to the position just this week, said law enforcement might have to get involved if the situation doesn’t improve.

“If the individual doesn’t respond, we have the contact information with us, so we are sending a team of officials to deliver a public health order in person to those individuals to ensure that they are following the isolation or quarantine orders,” she said. “So, if you don’t respond, very candidly I’m telling you that you’re going to have a visit from a law enforcement officer and a public health official.”

The city has recorded 545 deaths caused by the disease and about 27,400 total cases, the seventh-highest total for a Texas city. For the week that ended Oct. 3, El Paso County saw 1,765 cases, the highest one-week total since the first week of August.

Mayor Dee Margo said the spike isn’t tied to the recent Labor Day weekend or any other large gathering, instead attributing it to a breakdown in El Pasoans' resolve seven months into the pandemic.

“This is simply due to community spread and letting our guards down,” he said Thursday during a news conference. “We must take care of ourselves so that we can take care of each other. I know this has been a difficult time for so many and there is an urge for a sense of normalcy.”

The surge in El Paso comes as Gov. Greg Abbott offered the majority of Texas counties the opportunity to expand current capacity at stores and restaurants from 50 percent to 75 percent, and to consider reopening bars next week at half of their stated capacity.

But El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego hinted this week he might use a provision in Abbott’s order that allows county officials to opt out of the expansion.

“Unfortunately, the group with the highest percentage of active COVID cases are young people between the ages of 20-29. Opening bars in El Paso will only further increase the positive cases in this age group,” he said in a statement, adding that he’ll make a decision soon after consulting with local health authorities.

There have been more than 400 violations or citations issued from local law enforcement or health department officials to entities or individuals in the county for violating state and local ordinances issued to curb the spread.

As cases rise, school districts in El Paso County are looking for ways to keep schools completely closed or limit the number of students coming back. The Texas Education Agency largely requires districts to allow all students back who choose to learn in person.

El Paso ISD, which has instructed students virtually for weeks, announced last week that it would delay the start of in-person classes until Oct. 26. Superintendent Juan Cabrera told The Texas Tribune he is seeking a state waiver to delay until December, which the school board would have to approve. District leaders have been watching the trends with the positivity rate, determined to keep schools closed unless it was below 5% for a long period of time. Now it’s more than twice that number, Cabrera said.

“I know people are getting tired and people want to go back, but we didn’t meet our numbers,” he said. “You put a number out there and you stick with it.” About 60% of families in the majority-Hispanic school district have chosen to continue learning virtually. Some parents in the smaller faction started a Facebook group criticizing leaders for keeping classrooms closed, worried about the mental health and educational impact virtual learning is having on their children. Many in the group post about leaving the district for private schools and charter schools, a potential financial hit on the district, whose funding is based on student attendance.

Mora, the city health director, said that of the 2,813 cases recorded from Sept. 17-30, about 13 percent were traced back to schools or day cares. It’s one of the largest percentages among the cases reported in that time frame. About 14 percent reported traveling outside the city and another 14 percent visited grocery stores or retail stores. Fewer than 10 percent reported eating at restaurants.

Aliyya Swaby contributed to this report.