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El Paso Mayor Dee Margo says Hispanics have higher COVID-19 hospital rates than “normal Caucasians”

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This story has been updated with comment from Mayor Dee Margo.

In a nationally televised interview, El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said El Paso is facing a COVID-19 crisis because Hispanics are far more likely to be hospitalized than “normal Caucasians.”

“And as the CDC said earlier this week — our population is 85 percent Hispanic and we are four times more prevalent to be hospitalized because of COVID than any other, than the normal Caucasians,” Margo said Friday on ABC’s morning news show “GMA3: What You Need to Know.”

Margo has not responded to a request for comment from El Paso Matters. A day after this story was published, the mayor offered a statement to KTSM-TV saying his comments were intended to “reflect how vulnerable we are, and unfortunately my statement is being taken out of context to insinuate otherwise.” He statement did not address his “normal Caucasians” reference or provide what he thought was proper context.

This is the second time in recent weeks that Margo has made inflammatory remarks when discussing El Paso’s COVID-19 crisis.

In October, Margo accused city Rep. Peter Svarzbein — who lost family in the Holocaust — of proposing “Gestapo-like tactics” when he advocated for closing off inside dining at restaurants for two weeks to slow the spread of COVID-19. Margo later apologized.

The portrayal of white people as “normal” — and people of color as not — has a long, racist history in the United States. In 1982, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates said Black people might die in police chokeholds because “their veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people.”

El Paso has had almost 50,000 new COVID-19 infections in the past five weeks. Hospitals have been overwhelmed, and federal and state agencies have rushed additional medical personnel to El Paso. El Paso has confirmed more than 850 COVID-19 deaths, with another 449 under investigation.

Deaths have mounted so rapidly that nine mobile morgues are storing bodies. When the Texas National Guard didn’t respond to County Judge Ricardo Samaniego’s request to provide mortuary assistance, the county government used jail inmates to move bodies, then posted a job announcement for morgue attendants.

In a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday, Samaniego said 234 bodies were being stored in the county’s main morgue and the nine refrigerated trailers serving as mobile morgues.

Despite Samaniego’s plea for National Guard assistance, Margo said in the “GMA3” interview that El Paso didn’t need additional help.

“Right now we are receiving all of the resources and assets that we need,” Margo said.

The National Guard late Friday agreed to Samaniego’s request to provide mortuary assistance. The city issued a news release a few minutes later, with Margo saying: “The Texas Military will provide us with the critical personnel to carry out our fatality management plan and we are very grateful to them for their ongoing support.”

The city news release didn’t mention Samaniego, who Margo has been feuding with in recent weeks.

In his interview with “GMA3,” Margo referenced a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that said Hispanics or Latinos were 4.1 times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be hospitalized with COVID-19. The report said Black people and Native Americans also are far more likely to require hospitalization than non-Hispanic whites.

Neither Margo nor the CDC report sought to explain why Hispanics and other people of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

A Mayo Clinic analysis in August cited several explanations: “underlying health conditions, dense living conditions, employment in the service industry or as an essential worker, access to health care, and racism.”

COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Hispanics has been known for months. In April, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, sent a letter to Samaniego and Margo, sharing a warning from Dr. Anthony Fauci “that minority communities are as vulnerable as nursing homes because of the underlying health conditions and comorbidities Hispanic communities face along with socio-economic conditions like poverty.”

In October, Escobar made the letter public, criticizing Margo and the city government for not doing enough to protect the community.

“Despite this, the City of El Paso exercised lax enforcement, granted waivers to groups hosting weddings and parties without any oversight, and has been unwilling to disclose the location of COVID-19 clusters,” Escobar said in a statement.

“Dr. Fauci’s ominous warning unfortunately proved to be true: Latinos represent 83% of our population but 92% of all cases and 90% of all COVID-19 deaths. Another well-respected national healthcare expert, Dr. Peter Hotez, has stated that what is happening in communities like El Paso is the ‘historic decimation of Hispanic communities,’” Escobar said. 

Margo was elected El Paso mayor in 2017. He ran a distant second in the Nov. 3 general election and will face former Mayor Oscar Leeser in a Dec. 12 runoff.

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date for the runoff election. It is Dec. 12.

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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