El Paso artist Gabe Velasquez created this mural at 221 W. Yandell in the aftermath of the Aug. 3 mass shooting. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

El Paso is in the midst of perhaps the greatest challenge in our history. That’s saying something for a community that’s responded to a terrorist attack and humanitarian crisis in the past two years.

Our COVID-19 crisis is the worst among major U.S. cities. The New York Times data tracker shows that we have the highest rate of new infections over the past two weeks of any metro area of more than 400,000 people, and the fastest growth rate of such metro areas in the past week. And that was before El Paso announced on Saturday that a record 1,216 people had tested positive the day before.

We now all know someone with COVID-19. For me, it’s people like “Black Klansman” author Ron Stallworth and his wife Patsy, who is a leader in efforts to battle food deserts in our community. 

Our ill friends and family members are among more than 13,000 El Pasoans who have been infected with the novel coronavirus in the past three weeks. Numbers can’t tell the full story of human loss and suffering our community is experiencing, but it’s important we understand how shocking these numbers are.

This public health catastrophe is unlikely to abate soon, for reasons I’ll explain, unless individual El Pasoans take the steps needed to protect themselves, their families and their neighbors.

Restrictions imposed over the past couple weeks — closing restaurants earlier, reducing the number of people allowed inside businesses, partially closing parks — are the equivalent of using a garden hose to put out a forest fire. Here’s what’s happening in our hospitals.

No cavalry is coming to save us. The state and federal governments are providing additional medical resources to our hospitals, which will help but will only marginally affect the crisis. There’s not going to be a shutdown of our economy (which would create a different sort of catastrophe.)  

The only way this gets better is for El Pasoans to join together and take steps we’ve known for months will slow the spread of this virus. 

  • Don’t go into public spaces, especially enclosed spaces, any more than you have to. Many El Pasoans have jobs they can’t do at home. So those of us who can work from home must do so to help protect those who can’t.
  • When we have to go out in public, do so alone if we can. Some caregivers and young parents can’t leave their loved ones at home when they go shopping. Those of us who have the ability to leave family at home while we shop must do so to protect those who can’t. (Voting is an important reason to go out in public. Consider using one of the seven express curbside locations to minimize your contacts.)
  • When you absolutely have to leave your home, wear a face covering (over your nose and mouth) and stay at least six feet away from other people. This is a health issue, not a political one. Taking steps to protect yourself and your community is simply the right thing to do.
  • Don’t join in large gatherings. This includes get-togethers with family members who don’t live in your home. This is among the biggest sacrifices we’re asked to make, but one of the most important.
  • Wash your hands frequently.

We must rigorously follow these steps because many of the key government interventions have broken down. We can find fault with our leaders and hold them accountable as each of us sees fit, but we must also assume increasing responsibility for solving the immediate catastrophe.

One key to slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus is widespread testing and quick notification to those who are positive. The amount of testing in El Paso has increased as more and more people have become infected. 

But the processing of those tests has slowed dramatically at the same time, meaning most people aren’t being notified of positive tests within 72 hours, the standard the city has set for timely notification.

The slow return of test results mean that many people who test positive delay the start of their quarantine, likely spreading the virus further in that time. We won’t see a substantial decline in new cases until we return to timely test notifications.

Here’s how you can help. If you take a COVID-19 test, presume you are positive until you hear otherwise. Quarantine yourself until you hear back on the test.

Another key government intervention that’s failing is contact tracing. If you test positive, the health department should call you and ask about people who have been in contact with you in recent days. The tracers then should connect with those people within 48 hours, notify them of exposure and urge them to get tested and quarantine.

That’s not happening in El Paso. As a result, many people exposed to the virus are unknowingly passing it to others.

Rapid spread of the virus will continue until contact tracing improves.

Two factors are responsible for the collapse of timely contact notification. One is people not responding to calls from contact tracers, which is an issue city officials have highlighted for the past two weeks. But the bigger issue is that the 270 contact tracers working for the health department can’t keep up with the rising number of new cases.

Officials say they’re adding more contact tracers, but that’s likely to make only a marginal difference in the immediate crisis.

Here’s how you can help. In addition to cooperating fully with government contact tracing efforts, we must become our own contact tracers. If you get tested because you suspect you might have been exposed or are showing some symptoms, reach out to people you’ve had contact with. Let them know they may have been exposed and urge them to get tested and reach out to people who’ve been around them recently.

El Pasoans have a long history of standing up for our community. We did it when we cared for tens of thousands of migrants who came to our community seeking shelter in 2018 and 2019, and we did it when a white supremacist killed 23 of our neighbors last year.

We can — and must — unite again with this COVID-19 crisis. No outsider will ride to our rescue. Only our spirit of love and compassion can protect us.

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.