El Paso funeral homes prepare refrigerated units to house bodies as Covid-19 cases in the Texas city soar

A man unloads a mobile morgue in July outside the El Paso County Office of the Medical Examiner in Texas. Funeral homes in El Paso had to get more refrigerated trailers for remains due to the increase in COVID-19 deaths.

(CNN) -- As COVID-19 cases in El Paso, Texas, continue to surge, funeral homes in the city are preparing for a surge in coronavirus-related deaths.

Part of that effort, two funeral homes told CNN, is to prepare additional refrigerated units to house bodies if their usual space isn't enough.

On Thursday, El Paso County officials reported 1,161 new COVID-19 cases -- a record high for the area, according to a daily coronavirus case report from the county. As of Friday, the total case count sits at 37,263.

This week saw COVID-19 cases soar across the US, with Thursday the first day with more than 70,000 new cases recorded since July 24, Johns Hopkins University data show. More than 41,000 people were also hospitalized across the US -- the highest level of nationwide hospitalizations since August 20, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

The virus has claimed more than 223,000 lives in the United States. That tally includes over 570 people in El Paso, a county of about 840,000 residents. Another 157 deaths there are under investigation.

Funeral home managers brace for a bad winter

To prepare for the expected swell in coronavirus deaths, Sunset Funeral Homes in El Paso has added three walk-in refrigeration units for bodies, manager Christopher Lujan told CNN on Thursday.

Lujan said most of the deaths his business is seeing are related to COVID-19.

"As far as from yesterday to today, we're seeing, you know, two out of every three cases that are coming in have been diagnosed with the COVID virus," Lujan said.

Perches Funeral Homes General Manager Jorge Ortiz told CNN he's added two more coolers. His business has also seen a rise in COVID-19 related deaths in the past two weeks.

"I would say maybe 15% to 20% of all the services we are getting now are COVID cases," Ortiz said.

He anticipates things will get even worse.

"We're getting there," he said. "I mean, flu season is coming, winter, so I'm pretty sure it is going to hit us bad."

El Paso County previously used refrigerated trailers to hold remains during the summer, when the county medical examiner's morgue was reaching capacity, CNN affiliate KVIA reported in July.

COVID-19 cases soar in El Paso

Coronavirus cases began to surge in El Paso earlier this month. But until this week, new cases hadn't surpassed 1,000 on a single day, the county's coronavirus report shows.

Coronavirus hospitalizations have also sharply increased this month, from 166 COVID-19 patients hospitalized on October 1 to 678 patients on Thursday, the county data show. Coronavirus cases are taking up 32% of all hospital capacity in the county.

El Paso health officials said community spread has surged because people who've tested positive aren't isolating and residents continue to attend family gatherings or parties, according to the city's Twitter account. Officials also credit the rise to a lack of face mask use and poor cooperation with contact tracers.

Despite concerning surges in coronavirus cases and deaths, El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said during a Thursday news conference he "cannot shut down the city," leaving that measure up to Gov. Greg Abbott. Margo also doesn't "think it's appropriate at this time" to shut down El Paso, he said.

Instead, Margo encouraged residents to stay home when possible for the next two weeks and continue to wear masks, maintain social distancing and wash their hands.

"Only we, by our behaviors, can stop the spread," he said. "It's serious, ladies and gentlemen. It's imperative that we do what we need to do, change our behaviors, if it's impacting us detrimentally as a community."

To assist El Paso with its COVID-19 response, Abbott announced Thursday that over 460 medical personnel will be deployed to the area, along with a mobile medical unit, 25 new beds and 30 oxygen concentrators, which boost a patient's oxygen levels if they're having difficulty breathing.

CNN's Jay Croft and Christina Maxouris contributed to this report.

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