Medical personnel, many from out of town, staff the auxiliary medical unit in the Texas Tech parking lot on Monday. The unit was built to hold patients as hospitals like nearby University Medical Center reached capacity due to the surge in COVID-19 cases. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

An ICU nurse left a grueling shift treating COVID-19 patients and was dismayed at what she saw as she drove through El Paso — full parking lots at shopping centers.

“Does everyone need to see the gruesomeness that I saw today to comprehend it?” said the nurse, who asked not to be identified because she feared repercussions. 

“Do you really need to go buy flowers at Target right now? No you don’t,” the nurse said.

While El Pasoans have received mixed messages from local leaders in response to County Judge Ricardo Samaniego’s stay-at-home order, medical workers have been besieged by skyrocketing hospitalizations in facilities stretched beyond their capacity. The most recent numbers of confirmed and suspected COVID-19 deaths indicate that El Paso averaged more than 20 deaths a day last week.

Samaniego has said he may extend the stay-at-home order, alongside news that the city will need 10 mobile morgues to be able to accommodate the growing backlog of recently deceased El Pasoans. A group of El Paso restaurant owners, supported by the Texas Attorney General’s Office, say the order is unlawful and are challenging it in court.

Intensive care unit nurses and emergency room technicians at hospitals throughout El Paso echo a common refrain: “Stay home!”

“Don’t go out unless you have to, wear a mask when you go out, and don’t get together in huge groups. It’s absurdly simple, but people are like, ‘ah well, I haven’t gotten it yet,” said Lilly Sanchez, an ICU nurse at University Medical Center. 

Lilly Sanchez (Photo courtesy of Lilly Sanchez)

Sanchez described a recent patient who had been hospitalized with COVID-19 for 10 days; a young guy, he told her that he had just run a marathon a month earlier. 

“People want to think that they’re young and healthy and immune, but this dude had no reason that he should have been hospitalized. This is the kind of person that you would expect to just like, have a fever for a couple days and then get over it,” she said.

When I first spoke with Sanchez a week ago, she said the hardest part of working as a nurse through this surge was the constant fear that she would bring COVID-19 home to her husband and two small children. A couple days later, her nightmare became reality: she, her husband, and her two kids all tested positive for coronavirus.

“It feels really awful,” she said. “We’ve had marital strife about this because (my husband) has a heart condition. It makes me feel like I’m this dangerous vector. I know plenty of people who have gotten COVID more than once, nurses or techs at the hospital, so by no means do I take this to mean I’m invincible now.”

Hospital workers have grave warnings for El Pasoans

“What is your message to El Pasoans?” I asked Sanchez and other medical workers who care for COVID-19 patients at the largest hospitals in El Paso. They urged El Pasoans to take the risks of COVID-19 extremely seriously, and to not make assumptions about the virus that has taken the lives of at least 708 El Pasoans as of Tuesday.

“My message to El Paso is to stay strong and stay home. A lot of people think this is a hoax — it’s not. I’ve worked the last couple days and I’ve had more than eight code blues, and those people were young, those people weren’t just old,” said an emergency room technician at Providence Memorial Hospital, who asked not to be identified due to fear of negative repercussions at work. 

I asked him what a code blue was. “People going into cardiac or respiratory arrest. We do everything in our power to try and bring them back, but sometimes we can’t do it. This is a scary virus. We don’t know how it’s going to act on everyone. You can be fine and the next minute you’re gasping for air, you’re trying to hold onto life.”

Luis Fons, a charge nurse in the ICU at Del Sol Medical Center, said that it has been difficult to stay optimistic as the hospitalization numbers have grown exponentially. 

Luis Fons (Photo courtesy of Las Palmas Del Sol Hospitals)

“As much as I love my profession, sometimes I feel like we’re losing more than we’re winning,”  Fons said. “At this point, it’s gotten so chaotic that we don’t know if we’ll ever get there. We have success stories as well as failure stories. With the huge surge going on, our failure stories have been doubling. It gets exhausting having to call families with bad news.”

He wants El Pasoans to know that he and his coworkers will be there for El Paso, no matter what happens. 

But an ICU night nurse at Providence Memorial worried that El Pasoans might take for granted that the hospitals can just keep expanding to accommodate growing hospitalization needs. She said that she and her colleagues are already having to make difficult choices in patient care because staff is spread thin. This nurse asked not to be identified for fear of negative repercussions.

“Unfortunately you give the most care to your sickest patient, and that’s what we’re going to do. But it’s sometimes a lot like putting out fires, because you’re going to go to that patient and it’s not like you get to spend enough time with any single patient because you’re too busy just putting out fires everywhere,” she said.

A charge nurse in the ICU at Providence Memorial, described having to choose which patients would get the “good” ventilators, and which would get the “jerry-rigged makeshift bullshit vents” that were ordered last-minute. 

“I’ve actively switched people from the good vent to the bad vent because they weren’t COVID, and is that fair? Honestly, no, not really. It sucks to do, but it kind of just has to be done,” said the nurse, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions.

Monique Poessiger, spokesperson for Providence Memorial Hospital, said “there aren’t “good” ventilators; rather all ventilators meet the requirements to provide safe care to ventilated patients.” She said “we continue to seek out and receive additional staffing, equipment and other resources to help our patients and team.”

Mobile morgues are parked outside of the El Paso County Medical Examiner’s Office on Monday. The county may need up to 10 refrigerated units to hold the bodies of deceased COVID-19 patients. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The nurse from Las Palmas echoed concerns that patient care would suffer as capacity is pushed to the brink. 

“The quantity of patients will decrease the quality of care and directly affect the outcomes. If you have standards that are statistics and studied, and if you change those integers, then you’re going to have poorer outcomes. I have seen nurses having more patients than they typically have, and the staff are working more and are more tired than they typically are. Different factors where it’s going to inherently affect the outcome because of the mass volume of patients that just need to be in the hospital,” she said. 

With the new case numbers of COVID-19, hospitalizations will likely continue to rise in El Paso. So too will deaths. The city has already begun airlifting patients to other cities, and this practice will continue as long as hospital capacity necessitates it and other cities are able to accommodate El Paso’s overflowing medical needs. 

A Las Palmas del Sol Healthcare spokesperson said their hospitals have taken steps to accommodate rising hospitalizations, including adding “more than 250 nurses and other ancillary personnel support from hospitals in our network and from state and federal agencies.”

The night nurse in the ICU at Providence said being sick with COVID in a faraway city is a fate she wouldn’t wish anyone. She too entreated El Pasoans to stay home. 

“There’s not enough nurses for the patients we already have, and (my message is) for El Pasoans to stay home. I know that they can’t see what’s going on in the hospitals, but listen to the health care workers that it’s very difficult right now.

“And it’s even more difficult when it’s your loved one in that bed. Hearing the sobs from family members, seeing them there on Facetime — they can’t be there when they pass, they can’t be there for them. It’s a whole different atmosphere when it’s your family, and I wouldn’t want anyone to go through this. Stay at home.”

Cover photo: Medical personnel, many from out of town, staff the auxiliary medical unit in the Texas Tech parking lot on Monday. The unit was built to hold patients as hospitals like nearby University Medical Center reached capacity due to the surge in COVID-19 cases. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.