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With Covid-19 cases fast on the rise, El Paso is running out of morgue space

At least 673 residents of the far west Texas community have died of coronavirus, up from 605 a week ago, as the pandemic continues to rage.
An attendant talks to a person waiting in their car at a coronavirus testing site at Ascarate Park in El Paso, Texas, on Oct. 31, 2020.Cengiz Yar / Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 110 El Paso residents in three weeks, and the far west Texas community is struggling to store its dead, officials said at a county commissioner meeting on Monday.

There had been 64,158 positive tests for coronavirus and at least 673 Covid-19 deaths in El Paso County since the pandemic took hold in March, according to public health data released on Monday.

The 673 dead is up from 605 reported a week ago, 576 victims tallied as of Oct. 26, and 557 Covid-19 fatalities as of Oct. 19, records showed.

"Yes, and hundreds more under investigation," El Paso County Commissioner David Stout said at the meeting, suggesting those totals could be an undercount.

The county now has six mobile morgues on the ground, and four more have been requested, officials said.

The main county morgue was completely full with 90 bodies late Monday afternoon, according to Nicholette Ruiz, an El Paso County senior policy adviser.

One temporary trailer had 13 of its 20 spots filled, a second mobile morgue had 35 of 36 slots taken and a third had 14 of 36 positions occupied, Ruiz said. The fourth mobile morgue will be used to shuttle remains from the morgue to the new trailers that are expected to arrive shortly, as more Covid-19 victims die.

“Our resources are being stretched, all of our doctors, nurses and front-line people are being taxed to the max,” El Paso County Commissioner Carl Robinson told NBC News on Tuesday.

The region's economic downturn brought on by Covid-19 has loved ones of victims without the money needed to pay for funerals, so county authorities and private mortuaries are storing bodies.

“We have a lack of jobs, a lack of income and then on top of that you have a family member getting sick and you may or may not have medical insurance, you don’t have burial insurance,” Robinson said.

All the mobile morgues will be stationed at the El Paso County Office of the Medical Examiner, hospitals and funeral homes — "where the demand dictates" — El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego told commissioners at the meeting.

The surge of Covid-19 fatalities couldn't be coming at a worse time, as the county was already bracing for a normal spike in influenza deaths.

"Those two coming together would not be good for us," Samaniego said. "That's an obvious fact."

A District Court judge on Friday upheld El Paso County's Oct. 29 order for all non-essential businesses to close in light of this latest Covid-19 spike.

"The county's stay-at-home order remains in full force and effect," Samaniego told commissioners on Monday. "I don't think there should be any confusion about that."

The shutdown order expires on Wednesday, and Samaniego said the county's hospital "numbers and the ability to manage" will determine whether the stay-at-home decree will be extended.